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It's the last two days of term. Students are flocking like confused gazelles, starting and trembling and dashing around all over. I must have seen thirty of them today. I'm very under the weather, what with the sinuses and the sneezing and the happy hormonal troubles (menstrual cycle all wayward and random for no adequately defined reason), and I consider it to be a significant achievement on my part that I haven't actually bludgeoned any of them to death with the staple remover. I also have a solution. It's in two parts.

  1. Chocolate. One of my co-workers is going all mad with charity Christmas shoeboxes full of goodies for underprivileged kiddies. (I hate the word "underprivileged". It's all politically correct for "uneducated and poverty-stricken and neglected and unhappy". Weasel word.) Anyway. I went forth and bought a bunch of toys and stationery and socks and stuff to donate to boxes, including about three giant packets of mini chocolate bars, only to re-read the instructions and realise the organisers didn't want chocolate. Why, I don't know. Chocolate makes the world go round, and can only help, even if only in momentary and superficial ways, if you're uneducated and poverty-stricken and neglected and unhappy. Anyway, I now have a massive supply of mini-chocolate-bars which, if I don't stage a direct intervention, I shall completely eat myself. I'm going to stick them in a giant jar on my desk and force them on students at the start of any consultation. I figure it'll make them feel better and less quivering, which will probably make me feel better and less homicidal. Also, I can eat them at intervals (the chocolate bars, not the students), which means I'll be soothed, but if I do happen to crack, any assaults with the staple-remover will be particularly energetic.

  2. Nonsense poetry. I nearly bit someone just now, and then had occasion to open up The Jumblies in a browser tag, and I feel much better. That's a particularly lovely, gentle, poetic piece of nonsense writing: the quest ambles happily off in the direction of wherever, no goal, no practicality whatsoever, its participants green-headed and blue-handed and off to sea in their sieve with a sort of dreamy implacability you have to respect. Since early childhood I have derived enormous happiness from the lovely inevitability of their response to the sea-worthiness of sieves: when the water comes in, as of course it does, they "wrap their feet / In a pinky paper all folded neat". Because of course they do. Always keep your feet dry when adventuring. If Bilbo Baggins didn't take extra socks, he certainly should have. I also love the images of the places they visit, and their simple joy as they drift along, whistling and warbling "a moony song / To the echoing sound of a coppery gong / In the shade of the mountains brown." As a kid I was always particularly charmed by the "dumplings made of beautiful yeast" when they get back. So satisfying.
Simple pleasures. The gentle, naive, dreamy inevitability of nonsense, and escaping from reality into it, possibly makes the world go round even more than chocolate does.
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Hooray, working at home today! Clearly it's time for a celebratory wol. We haven't had one in weeks, so let's have two.

  1. Courtesy of Confluency and a diverse trail of re-tweets, How to draw an owl. Amusingly cynical, and a lovely drawing.

  2. Edward Lear. I teach nonsense poetry to my second-year class, largely to their bemused bafflement, but I persevere on the grounds that everyone needs a Jumblie sooner or later, and besides, you can slide Saussure and signification in under the guise of nonsense theory. Recent interesting class discussions have revolved around "The Owl and the Pussycat", and oh my god I had to type that four times before it was anything other than "The Wol and the Pussycat", which is a drastically anachronistic mixing of kiddielit paradigms.

    I love this piece of poetry - it has a gentle, whimsical, dreamy rhythm which I remember from my parents reciting it to me, and which I rediscovered with huge joy when I could barely read. But, leaving aside all the weirdness of inter-species marriage between predators, have you ever noticed how strangely subversive the gender roles are in the story? Particularly given the stereotypes of Victorian sexual identity - dominant male, submissive female - it's quite iconoclastic that the owl and the cat are never definitively gendered, and their roles and depictions shift all over the show.

    The owl's initial role seems masculine, the troubador who sings courtly-style love-songs to the cat while accompanying itself on "a small guitar"; the cat is "beautiful". But if you look at the first drawing:

    - the cat is quite dominantly in control of the boat, and that tail is oddly phallic. In the next verse the owl is "elegant" and its singing "charmingly sweet", both of which represent feminine qualities in the average Victorian register, so the genders have flipped. The artwork echoes the flip: in the second picture the cat remains dominant, taller and sterner-looking and with big masculine chest, although oddly it's the shorter owl with its head bowed which offers the ring, reversing the usual marriage ceremony roles:

    In the third the roles are reversed again, taller/dominant "male" owl and slightly submissive-looking "female" cat:

    The final, haunting image of unity - "hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon" - is thus peculiarly subversive of Victorian gender identities, power relationships and sexual orientations. These creatures could be anything. The point is that they're happy together. Hooray for Edward Lear and queer theory wols!

variously literary

Monday, 4 October 2010 10:18 pm
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An odd assortment of writing sorts of things lately:

  • My latest Micfic is up; this fortnight's theme is "Ghosts". I ended up, for no adequately defined reason, being post-colonial. Go figure.
  • I just read Ursula Vernon's Dragonbreath, which is a semi-graphic novel aimed at approximately eight-year-olds. It's charming, amusing, latently subversive and inserts itself beautifully into the highly private and specific world-view of the child. Also, Wendell the iguana is my new favourite geek stereotype. Tell all your small daughters to hurry up and grow so I can give them copies.
  • Hogwarts Facebook pages. No, really. Also, Twitter feeds and a YouTube clip. These are very well done, and very amusing.
  • How to subtly diss Twilight. "Twilight, in particular, is in fact fairy tale, its de-fanged vampire hero operating as the glittering, unattainable prince whose power and attractions form the basis for an unexamined exclusive and heterosexual unity in classic fairy-tale terms." I am modestly proud of this sentence, which I think jumps all over Twilight's gender stupidities with a certain dignified restraint.
  • And, not unrelated to the above point, I finished this paper. Only 3 days late and 200 words over limit. And only moderate hair-tearing over bloody Chicago footnote style. Chicago footnote style brings me out in a rash. But it's done. Hooray!
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Children's fantasy has a very specific flavour to it: it's fundamentally innocent, prone to sharp edges and clear-cut dilemmas even when it's thoughtful and slightly gritty. Narnia and Hogwarts and even Earthsea are very deliberately unreal worlds even if some of the issues faced by their protagonists are not. This is possibly one of the reasons why so many adults who read fantasy also read children's fantasy, out of nostalgia for a milieu which is simple and innocent even in the middle of battle, injury and death. When done well, this is enormously consoling and surprisingly relevant, giving us things like The Dark is Rising and A Wizard of Earthsea. When it's done badly, it's trite and twee and really rather dreadful, giving us things like the more hamfisted bits of Narnia and Harry Potter. Regardless of whether it's done well or badly, it's not real, and that's why we have Lev Grossman. Review to follow. Please imagine this said in the weird mechanical voice of the speaking clock lady. )

This was in some ways an angry, despairing and rather bitter book: I admire it tremendously and think it did good and necessary and extremely intelligent things, but I can't really say I enjoyed it. I'll read it again, someday, when I've summoned the gumption all over again. But I'm very glad it exists. Somebody had to do it, and they did it well.
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My browser currently has an open tab entitled "When Hollywood Sucks, or, Hungry Girls, Lost Boys, and Vampirism in the Age of Reagan." Occasionally my life ain't 'alf bad. (Although that last student essay absolutely was. Apparently it's not enough to wantonly plagiarise most of your essay, in bizarrely fragmented bits, from a critical piece only vaguely related to the topic, you also have to randomly scatter it with entirely erroneous page references for a completely different article you don't seem to have read. Honestly).

Apparently all you lot don't also read my Twitter feed, which means the happy occasional link I fling out there for general delectation passes you sadly by. (By "all you lot" I possibly mean Jo, actually). I am absolutely going to sign up for Delicious one of these days, honest I am, but in the meantime, just for you, the latest random happenstance which has brought me linkery joy. (Ecited to add: "one of these days" apparently means right now. Who knew. Go me. Delicious link in left-hand sidebar, under "Extemporanea Elsewhere").

  • This is a rather seriously good discussion of relationships in Buffy, although by "seriously good" I may actually mean "Jennifer Crusie gets the Spike chivalric lover bit in the same terms I do." Whatever. Worth a read.

  • Space Nazis! No, seriously, Space Nazis. I really want this film to be made.

  • James Blue Cat has posted the first quarter of his kids' fantasy The Cabinet of Curiosities on his blog, further chapters to follow. It's a very happy-making piece of writing that pushes a lot of kids' fantasy geek buttons with wanton deliberation. [ profile] pumeza, you may enjoy playing spot-the-reference. It's also very nicely written - tight, focused, pacey, quirky, should make kids as happy as geeks. By a bizarre freak of happenstance I'm currently reading Robin Jarvis's The Woven Path, a kids' fantasy also featuring a strange magical museum full of references, and Cabinet is making me realise how badly written Jarvis's is. Honestly, I suspect I'm going to chuck The Woven Path before finishing it, it has a line in staggeringly awful sentences and clumsily unnatural action which is reminding me forcibly of some of my students. (Which is sad, because I adored Deathscent). I shake my tiny fists impotently at the Cosmic Wossnames for the fact that some twit published Jarvis and no-one wants to publish James. Sigh.
I suddenly recollect that there are at least two parcels waiting for me at the post office, and by some miracle there aren't actually students scratching feebly at my door. *flees while the getting's good*
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I do enjoy going to movies with friends, honest I do, but there's a completely separate and idiosyncratic pleasure in going to movies by myself. Sunday mornings are my favourite time: if I'm lucky I'll be the only person in the theatre, and can dangle my feet over the chairs in front of me and comment on the action at the top of my voice without anyone throwing popcorn. I can also sit in the back row, which is my preferred movie space, and which cuts neatly through the necessary compromise of movie-watching with friends (jo&stv are my favourite people in the multiverse with whom to do almost anything, but they like to be in the front third of the theatre where I like to be in the back third, and we usually compromise on pleasing no-one somewhere in the middle).

This morning I was the only person in the theatre for the first 20 minutes of the film and could heckle the previews with demands for Iron Man, alas without effect. Then I was rather weirdly (I don't understand people who miss the start of films) joined by a couple with a small child, who sat down in front and allowed the wretched infant to kick the back of the chairs loudly and with a slightly tragic lack of rhythm at random intervals throughout. Insofar as the film was Burton's Alice in Wonderland, there were moments when I almost sympathised. Not madly spoilery musings follow. )
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We had a sort of family Christmas tea thingy on Sunday, to swap presents as my sister's away up the coast on Christmas Day itself. I gave Da Niece my latest discovery, which involves two rather entertaining kiddie books by one John Himmelman, Chickens to the Rescue and Katie Loves the Kittens. The Katie one is amusingly rude about dogs, but the chickens one is pleasingly demented, featuring chickens in snorkelling gear, crash helmets and heavens alone knows what else, all with the requisite degree of fuss and feathers. Thusly:

The conversation went something like this:

SISTER: Kids' books these days are really lovely. Also, you always seem to find the subversive ones.
ME (thoughtfully, placing tips of fingers together in approved Patrician pose): Why, yes. Yes, I do.

It is remotely possible that she was also eyeing my Christmas tree, which this year is graced at its apex, inside the giant Christmas star, by a tiny green plush Cthulhu doll I won in a raffle at a CLAW tournament lo these many moons ago. He's very festive.

I feel that my Aunt Dahlia quotient is proceeding apace. Those sproggle-owing individuals among you who don't mind a spot of subversion, now with extra verse, I do heartily recommend John Himmelman.

In other, equally weird and lateral Christmas news, today I appear to have emerged from the stationers bearing something the tillslip insists is an "XMAS GAL SIN". I wish I could say that this gal plans to sin extra-subversively at Christmas, but I fear it'll be the usual: idolatry (still immersed in Supernatural), sloth, gluttony and taking the Lord's name in vain while I try to beat the (*#$^*^$ Fire Temple in Zelda.
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I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the live-action film version of Where The Wild Things Are (trailer here, I'd be interest to know what you Sendak-fan witterers think). Possible pros: it's live-action rather than CGI, it's not being directed by Stephen Spielberg, the trailer features my favourite Arcade Fire song, it's Spike Jonze. Possible cons: they're making a film of a beloved book, which by all the rules is doomed; I'm not sure it'll survive independently of Maurice Sendak's incredible artwork; the Wild Things talk; it's Spike Jonze. I shall content myself with the mantra Alan Moore occasionally mouths (post James Cain) but never quite got behind: Even If The Film Turns Out Crap The Book's Still On My Shelf.

In other news, Elizabeth Bear's cat talks in alliterative skaldic verse. Apparently. And, appropos of nothing, tonight I initiate jo&stv into the mysteries of lasagne-construction. They have to swear an oath, and get the tattoo, and everything. Also, we're going to watch Wanted.

Last Night I Dreamed: a confused journey to Mars, which was unexpectedly terraformed and growing forests and vast fields of vegetables. I think Venus may have been as well, only the fields were all on raised platforms held up by giant pillars, so the excessive moisture could drain out of the soil. Much of the dream was taken up with preventing atmospheric sabotage, and with the whinging of the spaceships full of farm workers who didn't like the long commute.
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My Evil Landlord put up new shelves for me a few weeks back, as a result of which my collection of kiddielit is now adequately housed, with room to grow. (This is necessary). I also moved a bunch of the kiddielit out of my study shelves, freeing up enough space that now my adult collection actually fits (just. This is going to become problematical very quickly). The process revealed two entire shelves of books comprising the following:
- books I have bought but haven't yet got around to reading (27 of them);
- books I have borrowed but haven't yet got around to reading (32 of them).
I should probably point out that in the last couple of months I have regressed to comfort-reading, which means I've re-read my entire Rex Stout collection once, my entire JD Robb collection once, and about two-thirds of my Diana Wynne Jones collection, this last in reverse chronological order for no adequately defined reason. There is clearly a Fatal Flaw in my reading practice. In a possibly futile attempt to mitigate this, I have spent most of the day reading from these shelves, in between rearranging books. The fruits of my labours:

Inkheart. Book club book. I've been avoiding this in the bookstore for a while, it didn't pass the Random Page test. In the event the writing style didn't annoy me enough to prevent me finishing it - it's translated from the German, giving it a slightly flat, colourless tone at times, but the story itself is compelling, if a little tense and nasty. The basic idea - being able to read storybook characters into existence, dragging them from their world into ours - is interesting and its implications, moral and psychological, are intelligently explored. I felt that the whole plot was a bit inward-turned, however, circling round and round the same point, with an ongoing intensification of lowering threat. Points, though, for excellent quotes from excellent children's lit, and really terrifying bad guys who are also complex and, at times, pitiable.

Bridge to Terebithia. One of those books I vaguely feel I should have read. Now I have. Entirely and utterly not what I was expecting, I'd randomly assumed it was a Narnia-style other-world fantasy, and in fact it's a beautifully-focused realist story about children's friendship, the imagination and, in an understated and rather heart-rending way, class differences. It's also a gut-punch, in the final few paragraphs if not in the climactic moment, and made me cry. Points for insight, empathy and a really lovely narrative restraint.

Weirdly enough both of these books have recently been made into films, neither of which I have seen, and both of which I rather suspect will dismally fail to do justice to the original. (Inkheart features Brendan Fraser. 'Nuff said.) Watch this space. Also, if you catch me talking about acquiring any more books at all until I've read the remaining 57, please stage an intervention.
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I know the PA system in my local supermarket is bad (even when they're not trying to talk over their current, premature soundtrack of bad R&B covers of syrupy Christmas carols), but I'd swear that this morning the manager said "Manfred, calling Manfred, please will all available chicken sexers come to Receiving". I... I think my brain is stunned.

I also wish to record for posterity the indecent amount of pleasure I'm finding in tracking down weird and wacky kids' books for my three-year-old niece. This morning: I STINK!, which is a pleasingly rumbustious soliloquy from a garbage truck.
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[ profile] wolverine_nun pointed me to to this strip, which is absolutely the best possible way to finish up a September devoted to Retro Kiddielit.

I am amused to note that my subject line will cover any number of texts, from Earthsea and The Dark Is Rising to the obvious Harry Potter. There are no new plots under the sun.

Returning, reluctantly, to adulthood, my ongoing obsessive affair with online book ordering has borne fruit recently in a rash of extremely interesting sf. Viz:

Charles Stross, Halting State. This uses his characteristic near-future net-world-gone-mad sort of setting, here spiked with rather entertainingly rude digs at career corporate suits and finance reptiles. The focus of the plot is the robbery of a bank within a MMORPG environment (by a team of orc thugs with a dragon in tow), but the whole thing spirals out into far more weighty matters, including an amusingly paranoid take on ARGs. I am somewhat surprised to note that he pulls off both extreme fragmentation into multiple viewpoints, and the use of the second person throughout - this latter is nicely tied into the theme, and really works rather well. Also, bonus cute geek romance. Recommended.

John Scalzi, The Android's Dream. I have an odd relationship with Scalzi's writing, which I discovered through reading his pleasingly snarky blog, Whatever. (He's the man who tapes bacon to his cat). His Old Man's War series is militaristic space opera, well-paced and entertaining, although at times slightly blandly told; it operates on an interestingly fine edge between gung-ho colonialist space battles, and political disassemblage of same. The political disassemblage is understated, at times almost lost in the adrenaline rush of the story, but is pervasive enough that you can never actually dismiss the whole thing as jingoistic boy-talk. The Android's Dream is rather different and offers an even better outlet for Scalzi's penchant for zippy dialogue; the setting is multi-species space opera, developed more with an eye to an amusing backdrop than to any real desire to explore alien civilisations. This is the infamous novel whose entire first chapter is an extended fart joke, if you can imagine a fart joke as the vehicle for political machination; the rest is a breakneck thriller with occasionally blackly surreal undertones. It's very funny, often very ridiculous, altogether an engaging read.

Jay Lake, Mainspring. Possibly sort of steampunkish, only not really - the tech level is earlier than 19th century, with overtones of 17th or 18th century Puritanism. With airships. The world is wound up, like a giant clock, by God. The equator is a giant wall with brass teeth along the top, forming the gears with which it intersects with the track of its orbit. You can look into the night sky and see the faint lines of the other planets' orbital tracks. Also, Christ was made of brass, as is the Angel Gabriel whose appearance opens the story. The central character is extremely likeable, a naïve apprentice lad who is promptly screwed over repeatedly. I'm only about halfway through this, but I love it - it's beautifully written, very real, truly strange.
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I got nuttin' today. Bar, that is, an endless stream of student queries, and Sid, Rampant. The sod. So I shall fall back on ranting about religion. And sex.

Nicked off BoingBoing: Philip Pullman celebrates the futility of banning books, and incidentally swipes with pinpoint accuracy at the inherent problem with religion:

Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed. The rank stench of oppression wafts from every authoritarian church, chapel, temple, mosque, or synagogue – from every place of worship where the priests have the power to meddle in the social and intellectual lives of their flocks, from every presidential palace or prime ministerial office where civil leaders have to pander to religious ones.

And, in sharp contradistinction: when fashion has reached the point where the ridiculous things it makes its models wear, also make its models fall over, surely it has logically eaten itself? The point is presumably to present clothes that only look good on anorexic catwalk strutters and thus engender hopeless desire and self-loathing in the rest of us - but if they don't even function on the models, what the hell's the point? The bit that got my goat was the comment that extreme heels are "an empowering assertion of your own femininity". Empowering bollocks. No-one's empowered who's teetering ridiculously on their pins, destroying their body and looking like some unnatural child's-toy anti-Weeble - stick-thin, wobbling and definitely falling down.

To finish up Retro Kiddielit, a return to my perennial love affair with the Victorians. George Macdonald is an unlikely figure for my literary adoration: a Scottish Calvinist minister, he writes amazing children's fantasy so steeped in fairy tale, folklore and a profound and sensitive awareness of symbol that by and large their Christian message doesn't descend to allegory. He was a huge influence on Tolkien and Lewis; his adult fairy tales, Phantastes and Lilith are compelling, mystical and frequently extremely sexy. The Princess and Curdie is a sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, which is probably better-known, the story of the princess who saves her kingdom from the threat of the grotesque goblins in the mines, with the help of her beautiful, enigmatic great-great-great grandmother and the miner's lad Curdie. The Princess and Curdie is altogether weirder and more despairing, an investigation into political morality which explores corruption through incredibly powerful animal images. I was both horrified and fascinated for many years by my childhood reading of the book, and by the shuddersome image of shaking hands with a man only to find that, instead of a hand, you are grasping the belly of a snake or the hoof of a pig. I loved the Uglies, though.
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Cape Town is having no truck with this spring nonsense - this is the latest, longest, wettest winter I can remember. Today the climate decided bugger all this drip and drizzle nonsense, let's rain. Fifteen minutes of solid downpour, in which I could barely hold up my umbrella because of the weight of water. I made it to the car laughing like a loon, with my characteristic flowing skirts kited up to my knees and sodden nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, I love this weather; apart from anything else, the last month's pattern of two warm days followed by three or four of rain, has made everything with halfway pretentions to photosynthesis go suddenly, tropically mad and leap skywards with glad cries of "sproing!". The garden has a lawn for the first time in years, all the greens are GREEN, and the brickwork of the paved area in the corner is covered with moss. Also, puddles, rain drumming on the roof at night, and a plethora of exceedingly happy geese.

As a downside, I have a cold. Again. I'm proposing to ignore the little bugger and hope he goes away, and that he doesn't disturb the cosmic bulk of Sid the Sinus Infection lurking in his R'lyeh slime-cavern. But I must add that I think it's a Cosmic Conspiracy to keep me away from the gym.

I'm slightly running out of September in which to do Retro Kiddielit, and should state, upfront and for the record, that the last two days are going to be filled with things that randomly occur to me rather than any crowning essential of children's lit. Thus this one, which is one of those books which sticks in the mind mostly because it's kinda odd. Pauline Clarke's The Twelve and the Genii pushes two of my happy buttons, the one being the adventures of tiny people in the mould of Lilliput, the Borrowers or Mistress Masham's Repose (which is a bonus kiddielit classic by T.H. White which follows the adventures of a colony of Lilliputians in England, and should be read by all right-thinking people, particularly those who enjoy political satire). The other, of course, is my litgeekiness: The Twelve is about the twentieth-century children who discover the twelve wooden soldiers which once belonged to the Brontë siblings, who wrote stories about their adventures. The soldiers, of course, come to life; but the huge appeal of the novel is the personalities they have, their sharp, lively delineation as characters in their own right despite their size, and the curiously realistic pragmatism with which they face their giant world. The relationship between them and the boy who finds them, and his desperate protectiveness of the twelve, is beautifully drawn.
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Generally, I'm happy to say, the complete non-profile of this blog means that I don't get a lot of spam - I think I deleted one comment about four months ago. But apparently the combination of recent keywords - certainly Sarah Palin, but possibly also divvils, imbecility, spitting and "hideous occultic deformity" - seems to have drawn the political spambots out of hiding. Resulting in the following comment to yesterday's post:

has mccain thrown the election?
John McCain, to the chagrin of his party, threw a gutterball when he selected that ridiculous creature from Alaska as his running mate. The Senator from Arizona who - for better or worse - can't tell a Baptist from a snake-handler, doesn't know what he has on his hands. Mayor Palin belongs to the "Dominionist" movement, a cult whose "support" for Israel is highly suspect (the Jews must be gathered in Israel for the Coming of Christ, who will then "perfect" them as Christians). We'd likewise be interested in her position vis-a-vis the infamous 13th forgery known as "Revelation 2:9." McCain's obvious ignorance of these matters has alienated a sizable portion of both the Orthodox and Reform Jewish communities. He had a clear opportunity to nominate the young congressman from Richmond, Eric Cantor, but chose instead to align himself with the sketchy Governor from Alaska, a lady who once tried to ban the teen classic "I Capture the Castle" from her local library. McCain's choice wasn't simply an insult to Jews, but to thoughtful Gentiles as well. Let's hope that he realizes his error before it's too late.
Matthew Anger
We gloss for a moment over the misguided aim of the spambot, choosing to target a South African Gentile blogger whose focus subjects include sf, fantasy, Cape-Town-fondling and whinging about academia, and whose sole mention of Sarah Palin has been to make sly digs in passing at her choice of spectacles. Inappropriateness aside, the register fascinates me. The spambot is clearly two things: (a) not a supporter of Sarah Palin, and (b) Jewish. Beyond that, it's all a bit foggy.

The Jewish Spam-Bot (henceforth JSB) is considerably more literate than a lot of spam, but I'm amused by the disconnect between the restrained "cordiality" of the tone and the frothing paranoia of the content. Most terrifyingly, the American Presidential race is apparently entirely about religion, as Baptists, Jews and snake-handlers jostle in happy profusion. (This probably wouldn't be as amusing if I hadn't just watched that X-Files episode about snake-handling and divvils). The JSB is off on its own mission, striking wasp-like at issues I cannot see as central - it's certainly not an Obama-happy Democratic McCain-hater, and there's a curious lack of McCain-hatred in the anti-Palin frothing. McCain clearly doesn't have a position on the Jew question, and is thus by-the-way, and the 'bot is refreshingly uninterested in whether he did or didn't deliberately shoot his presidential chances in the foot with a moose gun.

And as for "the infamous 13th forgery known as Revelation 2:9", a quick Google mostly leaves me stunned at the gnashing facility with which a broad spectrum of fundamentalists can read "some Jews are not true Jews" as "all Jews are Satan." You do that in an essay, I scribble annoyed green remarks about misreading, stretching, READING properly, SUPPORT your statements, "this makes no sense" and, oh, yes, CONTEXT!

There's no hope for it, all that politics and snake-handling calls for a unicorn chaser. I'm a bit surprised to find myself identifying this book as a happy childhood reading memory, since Elizabeth Goudge has more than a slight tendency towards the realm of the syrupy, the uplifting and the twee; also, she comes perilously close all to often to the Christian allegory which pissed me off in Narnia; fortunately it isn't as prevalent in Little White Horse as it is in the weird Heaven/Zodiac elements of The Valley of Song. The Little White Horse is a novel I still read occasionally; it's an enchanting setting, a sequestered Victorian mini-kingdom peopled by loveable eccentrics, animals with delightful personalities, tragic love stories, ancient enmities, sumptuous food and drink, and suitably dark but redeemable villains. The heroine is full of personality and enterprise, and the whole thing is told with pleasingly witty and occasionally off-the-wall detail. (The tragic love story hinges on salmon-pink geraniums). The titular little white horse is used perfectly as a distant, enchanting icon, an almost-attainable ideal wrapped about with lovely constellations of moon and sun imagery. This is something to read when the world is simply too complicatedly dark, and you want some innocent pleasure. I promise, it's only occasionally twee.

the divvil's in it

Thursday, 25 September 2008 02:02 pm
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Memo to self: must acquire hot-air balloon for purposes of surveying the Common near our house. Application of the Gaiman/Pratchett theory of traffic suggests that this apparently innocently irregular trapezoid stretch of ground is, in fact, a cunningly disguised pentagram, Elder Sign or other hideous occultic deformity possibly including the noxious sigil Odegra, Defiler of Traffic. How else do you explain the fact that leaving the house at exactly the same time on the same day of the week will, from week to week, be productive of any random result on a spectrum from "takes five minutes to reach campus" to "takes forty-five minutes to reach the other side of the Common"? Today was hell. Just under an hour from my gate to my campus parking, bumper-to-bumper all the way, and a particularly disgusting quotient of impatient imbeciles clogging the crossings on the turn cycle. No random variables introduced since the same journey on Thursday last week. Either it's Odegra, or there's a demon of mischief possessing the traffic lights and randomly putting them all out of phase. Either way, I spit. Ptooey.

The annoyance of the above has been compounded by one of those days when the students queue outside my door, none of them with the necessary paperwork; the internet is snail-paced, the phone keeps ringing with additional, exciting imbecilities, and I'm embroiled in a war with a rival faculty over orientation venues. I console myself with two things. One: fainting goats. No, really, fainting goats. When startled, their leg muscles lock and they fall over. This is apparently a deliberate breed feature with actual (slightly dubious) evolutionary purpose. I am fond of goats, and wouldn't want to take out my sadistic fury at students on innocent caprines, but they look very funny.

Two: the final proofs of This Damned Book arrived. The layout is incredibly cool, beautifully in keeping with the cover. Now I just have to index it. *girds loins*. On the upside, the irritations of today have been such that I contemplate with active joy the prospect of a week off work even if it must be spent in the embrace of indexulary tentacles. (It was presumably in anticipation of same that Jo confronted us with something not unlike the awakening of Great Cthulhu in our game last night. Cue party exiting harbour at magically-enhanced speed on a stolen boat, to the sound effect of screeching tyres).

Today's Retro Kiddielit installment may be edging into the mainstream, but it has to be said. Alan Garner writes spare, controlled, edgy, dark-tinted children's fantasy, steeped in European mythology and English landscapes; The Weirdstone of Brisigamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, are fairly high-fantasy, and I devoured them as a child suffering from post-Tolkien fantasy cravings. My favourite of his, though, is far more domestic, a surprisingly adult-themed exploration of love and jealousy through the folkloric tale of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion, the Welsh epic. The Owl Service both fascinated me and thoroughly creeped me out as a child: its protagonists are modern teenagers, and their experience of this ancient tale of betrayal and punishment is haunting and unsettling. The central feature of the story also really resonated with me, the patterned dinner service whose design can be seen either as flowers or as owls: I love the way the trick of perception shapes the whole story. I like owls, but in this novel they're downright nasty.
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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 [ 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 Saturday Morning Hee (and possibly also the Department of Rude Puns Only Stv Will Appreciate), more David Byrne. Or, more accurately, the Brighton Port Authority, which is apparently a collaboration between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. (David Byrne seems to be a recurring theme in my posts lately. Memo to self, actually acquire some Talking Heads). The video for "Toe Jam" is full of naked people whose naughty bits have been creatively covered with censor blocks in amusing patterns. Despite this it's curiously innocent and rather sweet, one of those things that's simply happy-making to watch. (Gacked from the Very Short List, who have an amazing ability to dig up random cool stuff).

In other news, the Evil Landlord acquired a new computer and is playing computer games incessantly. This is just in time to avoid having his head ripped off as I stagger home from yet another day made psychotically annoying by what seems to be post-menstrual tension to find him cluttering up the living room so I can't watch X-Files. I should have realised these irritation levels were hormonal, since there is really no other way I can justify being horribly miffed at the presence of my housemate in his own house, one we have shared for eleven years without me manifesting any desire to kill him other than occasionally, for justified reasons like the washing up.

His mad computer gaming has, unfortunately, also vouchsafed me a revelation, namely that I really, really want to play Shadow Magic again. I am therefore casting this forth onto the waters, or witterers: if any of you geeky gaming types have, or know anyone who has, an unwanted copy of either Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne or Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, I am willing to pay Good Monies for same. They are not available new, and bloody expensive on Amazon Marketplace, so I'm hoping there's a lurking Saffrican somewhere who can make good the deficiency. (Alternatively, if anyone hangs around second-hand games joints and happens to see a copy, please let me know!)

Today's September Retro Kiddielit entry is another nod to my semi-professional obsession with self-conscious fairy tale. E. Nesbit's best-known works are her Edwardian children's novels, among them The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Railway Children, but she also writes amazingly witty and entertaining fairy tales. I grew up with two collections, The Last of the Dragons and Some Others (most of the stories in which you can find here) and the E. Nesbit Book of Fairy Stories. Any of you witterers who happen to have sat through one of my fairy-tale or Victorian seminars will probably be familiar with some of these stories; Nesbit's most notable tendency, apart from her self-conscious deconstruction of fairy tale structures and expectation, is her happy mixing of traditional structures with up-to-date elements. She has a passion for Edwardian cutting-edge technology, so her stories feature "magical" elements such as the lift in "The Charmed Life" (the Prince disguises himself as a lift attendant), Billy the King's dragon-slaying Lee-Metford rifle, and the diving bell in "Belinda and Bellamant". She's also very good at playing games with christening curses, enchantments and logic. My favourite story is possibly "Melisande, or, Long and Short Division", about a hapless princess cursed with baldness, who tries to rescue it by wishing she had golden hair a yard long which grew an inch every day and twice as fast every time it was cut. In the immortal words of the poet, you do the maths.

Last Night I Dreamed: preparing a braai for my sister and unspecified guests at my grandmother's house in Harare, I threw three old ginger stalks into the garden, where they promptly went feral and burrowed into the earth. They then almost instantly filled the garden bed with long, thin, wriggling stalks of ginger which we couldn't uproot. Surprisingly Cthulhoid, actually.
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Wow. In the Department of the Randomly Surreal, I've just taken a phone call to my office landline in which the annoying MTN voice lady announced that I had an SMS. This was followed by a throaty male baritone which observed, in perfectly level tones and without noticeable word breaks, "MY MOM HAD STROLL WE HAD TO SEE HER IN." What is this, the new spam?

The last few days, for some reason, are making me fully grok the significance of the Georgette Heyer phrase "an irritation of the nerves." My nerves are irritated. Things fret me when they shouldn't, which is possibly why the usual EL non-communication is getting to me. On the other hand, twenty minutes browsing the Can Haz Cheeseburger archive were very soothing. I'm not a huge fan of LOLcats, only about one in twenty is truly amusing, but cute kitties are good for the soul.

My mother's youngest sister used to live in Cape Town, and was a notable figure in my childhood for the perfectly lovely books she used to send us. Literate aunts are extremely important, as I frequently tell my niece. Anyway, my favourite among the books that she sent was Anne Fine's The Summer House Loon, which is unusual in the annals of my childhood kiddielit memories in that it isn't actually fantasy. It's a sort of social and emotional comedy, I suppose, seen through the eyes of the barely-teenaged Ione, who both observes and manipulates the interactions between her blind professor father, his beautiful typist, and Ned, the dopey, hippy, shambling, entirely endearing grad student who's in love with the typist. I think I had a crush on Ned when I was a kid, actually, he's a wonderful combination of intelligent, funny and helpless. The story ambles gently and wittily between relationship angst, academic rivalry, early Sardinian trade routes, impromptu party-arranging, teenaged manipulativeness and first experiences of drunkenness; it's sharply well-observed and pleasantly inconsequential. I think its huge strength, though, is the way it immerses you in Ione's adolescent world, in its classic combination of narcissism and fascinated observation of grown-up motivations and concerns. I also suspect that this book is at least partially responsible for my attraction to the world of academia.
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Bugger, forgot to do the September Kiddielit entry for today. Hmmm. Let's have us some Peter Dickinson.

Peter Dickinson is a great children's writer - his work is tough, chewy, vivid, intense, often emotionally difficult, and grittily real even when he's dealing with magical themes. He has an interestingly twisty mind which never quite goes where you expect it to. His best-known works are probably the Changes trilogy, The Weathermongers, The Devil's Children and Heartsease, which describe a Britain overtaken by a ferocious fear of technology, and its consequent reversion to pre-industrial culture and nastily closed-minded fanaticism. He's very good at contemporary stories with a subtle, slightly dark, magical element - telepathy, haunting, etc. I'm particularly fond of his younger children's story A Box of Nothing, which is quite the most entertainingly off-the-wall version of Big Bang theory I've ever encountered. I also love the complex, interesting, logical high-fantasy world and magic of The Ropemaker and its sequel, Angel Isle. But the one I first encountered when still at school, and which still tends to haunt me, is The Blue Hawk. Part of the appeal of this is because the central relationship is between a boy and the hawk he is training, and I'm horribly imprinted with my father's fantatical falconry hobby. But the book offers a fascinating world, a rigidly priest-ruled and hierarchical system which is rotten to the core, and ultimately destroyed by the boy's one innocent act of rebellion. The feel is ancient Egyptian, and the narrative has a dry, hot, prickling, spicy flavour all of its own. Amazing gods, too. One of Dickinson's huge strengths as a writer is that he doesn't over-explain.

Bonus interesting fact: he's married to Robin McKinley, the fantasy writer and another of my favourite authors.
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I enjoy Animal Review, they're bloody amusing as well as being moderately scientific. With the bat one they're also entertainingly rude about Batman, which seems to be my new theme. The article is giving me flashbacks to that weird, repetitive cut to a swooping bat which is used in the middle of the consummatory vampire-bites-supine-woman scene in Herzog's Nosferatu. I'm used to lecturing about film techniques for not showing moments of sexual climax - cut to heaving bedclothes, falling trees, thunderous storms, trains rushing through tunnels, synechdotal relaxing of hands... and diving bats? Yes, well.

Stv, whose tendency to acquire interesting domain names is more or less at the level of a nervous twitch, has set up The Salty Cracker Club for the purposes of documenting the end-of-month informal dinner club which takes the four of us off to a new and interesting Cape Town restaurant with each paycheck. Witterers are cordially invited to add their mite to the foodie discussion, if your proclivities should run in that direction. We're always looking for restaurant recommendations.

And, while we're on the subject of food: pie. Specifically, a book I remember reading when I was still at junior school, about a family of bakers who are asked to make an enormous pie for the King, in the midst of competition and scheming from rival pie-making families. The main character is the daughter of the family, and I have vivid memories of the scene in which her family smuggles in the giant pie dish by floating it down the river, with the daughter lying in it like a boat, dreamily watching the trees passing overhead. Of course, evil rivals intervene and the pie ends up sabotaged with too much pepper. I have absolute no recollection of how the story ends, but Google assures me1 that the book in question is Helen Cresswell's The Pie Makers. Now I'm infecting myself with this nostalgic "gosh, must find a copy" thing.

1 Once, that is, my internet connection had consented to connect to more than one page in five, randomly, while giving me 504 gateway timeouts on the rest. What's with the internets? Honestly, technojinx!


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