I am distracting myself with random internet wandering because I have just had to take Jyn in to the vet, she was a bit subdued and I searched her all over for bites and couldn't find anything, and it turns out she has a massive abscess inside her mouth. She's in tonight so they can keep her fasting before they operate tomorrow, and the house has only half its cat count and is very empty.
I am distracting myself with random internet wandering because I have just had to take Jyn in to the vet, she was a bit subdued and I searched her all over for bites and couldn't find anything, and it turns out she has a massive abscess inside her mouth. She's in tonight so they can keep her fasting before they operate tomorrow, and the house has only half its cat count and is very empty.
- We have reached a stage of blockbuster movies which is a perfect and literal embodiment of Baudrillardian simulation: they are endlessly proliferating copies of copies, to the point where all sense of an originating real is lost. This was not a film narrative, it was an awkward conglomeration of acceptable plot elements hacked together into the overall, cargo-cultish shape of a film, and set shambling into the cultural landscape in the shrewd and practised hope that it would fool the moviegoers into paying money for it. Which in the event was clearly successful in the financial sense, but catastrophically otherwise for the plot.
- A movie can't just be well-known heroic stereotypes enacting explosions, it needs a clear motivational thread to hold it together. And I realised very sharply last night that the thread needs, weirdly enough, to be moral: people need to do things because there is not just a practical but a philosophical reason to do them. Infinity War is trying in a half-arsed way to do some heavy philosophical lifting on the nature of evil, and the idea of sacrificing the individual for the overall good, but it can't hold the ideas together enough to do any sort of meaningful or consistent exploration. It tries to evoke them by passing reference, and assumes that's enough. As a result there was no actual logic to character reactions; not only did the vast majority of the supposedly pivotal and emotionally trying decisions fall under the category of Too Stupid To Live, they had no emotional impact, either, because they made no sense.
- I don't care how much money the latest Thor film made and how much that owed to its campy humour: Infinity War had a much darker tone given its themes, and its writers aren't fit to run Taika Waititi's scripts down to the copy shop, and certainly weren't up to the challenge either of generating said humour or of mixing the two, so the humour attempts simply sounded lame, forced and out of place.
- Infinite cosmic power is a narrative and cinematic trap. Not only would it be visually boring if properly realised, it's incredibly difficult to retain narrative drive and challenge in the face of it, and it makes laughable monkeys out of consistency. Examples are legion, but a random one that particularly narked me: given what Thanos can do with all except the last stone, there was absolutely no reason to treat the Wakandan forcefield as any sort of barrier, he could have taken it down with a fingersnap. It was clearly there to make pretty large-scale battlefields and induce artificial Plastic Trauma, TM. Unfortunately infinite cosmic power needs exceedingly clever scriptwriting, which this signally wasn't.
- The film tried to make Thanos into a subjectivity, and he shouldn't have been. (a) because there wasn't enough narrative meat to make his motivations meaningful, and (b) because he's a narcissistic homicidal paternalistic wangst-ridden dickhead (literally) and the fact that the writers clearly found that interesting is everything you need to know about them in order to run screaming in the opposite direction.
- Further to (8) above, if the most recurring feature of your so-called plot is the sustained theme of Men Feeling Plastic Conflict, TM, and having to angst about sacrificing women to it before deciding to sacrifice them anyway, your misogynistic pissbag writers need to be shot out of a cannon into the heart of the sun. Also, I don't think it's just my steady diet of slash which makes me see this, but there were altogether too many Default Heterosexual Romances in that movie. If the only emotional connection you can imagine between characters is a stereotypical romance, you have insufficient imagination to be writing film scripts.
- The Avengers franchise has some significant cultural and character capital built up now, and this film cheerfully threw that into a handy black hole. There were too many characters in this film, and none of them did anything that made sense or developed them in any useful way, and nine tenths of the actors concerned are actually really good and deserved far better. And I'm not even going to get into the random deaths thing, because (a) they were unearned and had no emotional impact and I frankly didn't care, and (b) they'll probably all be rolled back because comics.
OK, that was cathartic, I feel better now. Although entirely inclined to be very, very wary of the upcoming Captain Marvel film, she's a brilliant character and survey says Marvel's moviemaking machine will chew her up and spit her out in tiny, plastic bits gummed together with sticky sexism. Woe.
On the other hand, that department does contain at least one colleague who has been long-term friend and ally since we were both in Masters, and whose consolatory email upon learning that Minerva do not, at present, think I am a good fit for their operation, included the above lovely sentence of my subject line. My life right now feels very much like marking time, and it is, indeed, exhausting.The job hunt continues, with reeling, writhing and fainting in coils.
My difficult boss has, with consummate skill in the navigation of university procedures and politics, managed to absent herself from her job for four months at the most pressurised time of year and arrange a return this week under circumstances which, by a spectacular feat of gaslighting, insist that the whole thing was All Our Fault, not hers. There are doomful HR warnings hanging, not over her, but over the rest of the faculty. I'm staggering slightly, partially with reluctant admiration at the sheer chutzpah, and am also a bit numb. I think it's going to get very bad from here on out, but i can't imagine how it's going to play out, the whole situation is so bizarre, so the future feels curiously blank. At this point a quick alien abduction (of me, rather than her) would probably sort the whole thing nicely, in the sense of resolving all ambiguities, at least. I am possibly to be found hereafter of a night standing in the back courtyard looking hopefully at the sky while brandishing a small placard reading "TAKE ME NOW". An interstellar career change would be just the ticket. If not, I hear Canada's nice.
2016 continues to deliver, in the sense of delivering pain and loss and the removal of hope. I am surprisingly devastated by the death of Carrie Fisher: I hadn't realised how much her role in Force Awakens had meant to me. Her feisty princess was, of course, integral to our investment in the original Star Wars trilogy, and her role as a female character was uncommonly powerful for the time - the antithesis of a passive damsel, she had both the personality and the political/tactical power to hold her own against the men. (Also, as I persist in thinking of Trump as Jabba the Hutt, there is considerable vindictive satisfaction in imagining her choking him with a chain, the action which was the archetypal denial of the chain-mail bikini and the female role it attempts to define).
But it was the mature Leia of Force Awakens who was most interesting, and whose loss I really mourn. The film created a powerful narrative place for her - a woman who has lost everything, home and family and political hope, and yet who continues to fight. We are given precious few female cinematic icons who are permitted to be experienced, mature, battered by life, wise, flawed, powerful, authoritative, instrumental - defined, in short, by something other than their sexuality. But the role worked because of who she was outside it - a gutsy, unabashed, irreverent older woman who had no truck with societal expectation, who called out misogyny and objectification, and who was frank and unashamed about her own struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. There's a lovely quote from her in The Princess Diarist in which she says about Star Wars that “Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it.” In a lot of ways she could have been talking about herself.
I am sad that she has had her life prematurely ended, because she was making a marvellous and inspiring thing out of her own difficulties. I am heartsore that we have lost both her real-life presence and voice as an anodyne to Hollywood stupidities, and her character in future Star Wars films. If we ever needed an icon for continued resistance against fascist, misogynist systems in the teeth of the odds, it's now. Fuck 2016.
(My subject line is from one of Carrie's own autobiographical books, in which she describes George Lucas's insistence that she not wear a bra with the white dress because "there's no underwear in space" and with weightlessness your body will expand but your bra won't, so it'll strangle you. Which is terrible science and everything you need to know about justifying objectification by mansplaining right there, but the point is that Carrie wanted my subject line to be her obituary, so it is.)
In the Infinitely Larger Department of Downside, the two hideous years of protests have generally had far from salutary effects. My weekend and Monday will be entirely full of board schedule checking to a far greater extent than usual, which is the product of discovering, yesterday evening, that academics had pulled out of three of the prelim committees. They apparently did this on Wednesday, and the administrator responsible for the committee scheduling simply didn't tell me. I found out last night in passing, accidentally, during the course of a query about something else. Apparently it hadn't penetrated the administrator's head that we have responsibilities for due diligence in these checks, and we can't simply truncate the committees. Someone has to take up the slack. That would be me. After a bit of a reshuffle, I now have two board schedules, the second being almost as thick as the one I was originally allocated, and which habitually takes me 8-10 hours to check.
I'm very tired and don't have the energy to be properly furious, but by gum if it weren't the end of the year I would be raging. Because, see, I do get it. It's been a year and a half of hell. Academics are exhausted, drained, alienated, pushed later into the year than they would be because of the delayed semester, and they are protecting themselves by simply saying "no". From their side it's justified: the whole protest debacle has been hell on everyone, requiring huge amounts of compensatory admin and emotional energy. But the thing is, the admin processes don't simply stop because everyone's tired. We have a faculty full of students awaiting their year-end coding fates, and we have a responsibility to maintain our processes and standards by doing the proper check. And academics are by the weird caste system of a university the ones who are more able to complacently retire into narcissistic individualism under pressure. They are protected by tenure, and the system always privileges their individuality, which is the realm of their intellectual and research life, over the mundane grind of maintaining the administrative system. So they say "no", and the system does what it always does, which is to make the administrators compensate, because they don't have the luxury of refusal.
It's been a hellish time to be in academia. We are stressing people way beyond acceptable boundaries, and we are going to see things snapping, mostly because people are simply going to up sticks and leave. Which is going to further compromise function and standards, which is going to see more people leaving. I hope like hell it isn't the beginning of the end.
My subject line is Franz Ferdinand, by processes of (a) alphabetical car music rotation, and (b) they're catchy. Memo to self, acquire more albums, I'd forgotten how much I enjoy them.
On the upside, Tumblr is circulating relevant post-election Cohen lyrics, namely from "Everybody Knows", which is a favourite of mine and also satisfyingly and appropriately despairing.
everybody knows that the dice are loadedIn this dark time in American politics, I re-recommend you copperbadge's unabashedly fantasy wish-fulfilment political AU with the Avengers taking the White House. Leader of the Free World. Balm to the political soul.
everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
everybody knows that the war is over
everybody knows the good guys lost
everybody knows the fight was fixed
the poor stay poor, the rich get rich
that’s how it goes
and everybody knows
Further in the Department of Frivolous Escapism With Which I Propose To Distract Myself, I hear really positive buzz about Mass Effect: Andromeda, whose release date has been delayed to next year, which is a Good Thing because if they released it in 2016, 2016 would infallibly fuck it up beyond redemption. Interesting details on the game's developments here; I like what they have apparently done to tweak the combat system, and I am really excited about the increased emphasis on character interactions, because as you all know I am a mad and desperate fangirl for Bioware character interactions. The statement "The squadmate with the least amount of lines in Andromeda has more lines than the squadmate with the most amount of lines in ME3" made me go "squeee!", although not quite as ear-splittingly as if they'd replaced "ME3" with "Inquisition". I shall set aside a two-week leave period around Andromeda's release date, upgrade my computer, and permit 2017 to establish its bona fides appropriately while waving two fingers in 2016's general direction. Because really.
I have wanted to make American-style cornbread for years, because it sounds cool, but we don't actually produce cornmeal of the requisite grade in this country, so I've never pulled it together before. However, a couple of months back one of the Tumblr bloggers I read posted a recipe for skillet cornbread with caramelised onions, which looked so good I was moved to do five minutes of internet research, which revealed that you can substitute the cornmeal in cornbread with polenta, which is, in fact, apparently identical to coarse-ground cornmeal. As I retain my pathological inability to follow a recipe with any degree of fidelity, I am posting below my version, rather than simply linking to his, although you can have the original link as well, here. My version doesn't caramelise the onions with actual caramel, but compensates by upping the butterfat quotient of the cornbread itself to more civilised levels, i.e. decadent ones. I will have no truck with skimmed milk. It also reduces the amount of maple syrup, because I think this is better if it's not too sweet. It doesn't seem to make much difference if you use real maple syrup or maple-flavoured golden syrup, you just need that touch of sweetness and flavour.
SKILLET CORNBREAD WITH CARAMELISED ONIONS
1 tsp brown sugar
3 tbsp butter
1 medium-sized red onion, diced (or sweet white onion if you can find them)
250ml full cream Greek yoghurt (you could use low fat if you prefer, but why?)
125ml buttermilk (or normal milk if you must be health-conscious)
3 Tbsp melted butter
3 tblsp maple syrup
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 a tin of whole kernel sweetcorn (this is optional, but works very well).
I make this in a weird but magical handle-less stainless steel pan thingy I inherited from Jo(ty) when she and Phleep fled the country - it has a nice heavy base, which I think is the important bit, and you can bung it in the oven owing to the lack of handle. I've also made this in a Dutch oven, i.e. my heavy cast-iron Le Creuset knockoff. You don't need anything with a lid.
- Preheat oven to 425oF
- Caramelise the onions: on medium to low heat, melt the 3 tblsp butter and add the chopped onions. Allow to sweat gently and soften for about 20 mins, stirring occasionally, until they start caramelising properly. Cheat and add 1 tsp brown sugar and a little water. Cook another 5 mins or so.
- Mix dry ingredients (polenta, flour, backing powder, baking soda, salt) in a mixing bowl. Mix yoghurt, milk, melted butter and syrup with the egg in a measuring jug. Fling wet and sinfully fatty ingredients into dry ingredients and mix.
- Mix in the sweetcorn. You can also fling in things like bits of chilli, chopped peppadews, crispy bacon bits, grated cheese or chopped spring onion, although I wouldn't put them all in at once. I like the spring onion/peppadew version, although the whole corn one is my favourite.
- Tilt the onion pan to run the butter up the sides, for greasing purposes, and spread the onions vaguely evenly over the bottom.
- Pour the batter over the onions and bung into the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until firm to the touch and starting to brown. Let it cool for five minutes or so before loosening the sides and inverting onto a plate. You'll end up with a flat round loaf with caramelised onion topping, like a savoury upside down cake.
- This is damned good with chili, or soup, or in chunks all on its own, and would make a superb and wildly cross-cultural accompaniment to braai. It's also, I warn you, absurdly moreish, I can flatten a whole loaf unaided in 24 hours. If eating it over a couple of days, it works to microwave slices for 20 seconds or so on Day 2, it freshens them and it's better warm.
I am saddened to report that yesterday the Evil Landlord had to take the unpleasant and necessary decision to euthanase Golux, as the cancerous growths on her nose were no longer responding to palliative treatment and were causing her distress. And while I haven't shared space with Golux for eighteen months, she was my kitty for fifteen years, and I am sad, and missing her with a new poignancy.
When I moved in with the Evil Landlord, late in 1998, I had only the one cat, Fish of lamented memory and Death Star legend. The dreaded Thakky was responsible for our acquisition, several months later, of two kittens from Animal Welfare; she took us out there to select them, and paid for all the paperwork, as a house-warming present. (Best. Housewarming. Present. Ever.) We inspected cage after cage of wriggling kittens in various shades and at various stages of development. I wanted, particularly, one male and one female for reasons of personality balance, and at least one black cat because I missed Pixie and Polonius, the two black cats I'd owned previously. We found a small black female of approximately the right age who was the sole black spot in a seething mass of silver tabby/white siblings, and the nice schoolkid volunteer who was assisting us solemnly held up all said siblings to inspect their nether regions, finally handing over one he swore was male. The black kitten became Todal, and the tabby/white "male" Golux. The vet later, and with some mockery, disabused us of the "male" assumption, so it's fortunate the name works as gender-neutral. But I swear the initial gender mis-assignment somehow shaped her character, or at least those parts of it that were hesitant, thoughtful and slightly confused.
Todal and Golux were named from James Thurber's Thirteen Clocks; the Todal is an agent of the devil sent to punish evil-doers for not doing as much evil as they should, which is everything you need to know about Todal the cat right there. (Favourite pastime: sitting on top of the bookshelf and knocking the row of yarn cones onto the floor deliberately, one by one). Tracy always maintained that we doomed her to that personality with the name, and we should have called her Cream-Puff if we wanted a less evil feline. By that logic we possibly also created Golux: the book-Golux is an odd, gentle, offbeat little character who's invisible at will, and whose essentially good nature is slightly hapless and bumbling.
Thurber's description says that "his eyes were wide and astonished, as if everything were happening for the first time", which expresses something of the sweetly naive element to Golux's character. I obviously chose the name because the kitten was fairly shy and retiring from the first, but either it was an inspired choice, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Or I over-anthropomorphise my cats. Jo suggested the other day that most people share space with slightly alien little cat-entities, where I have relationships with colourful feline personalities. It's a fair cop.) It makes me obscurely happy that if you do a Google image search for "thurber golux" you'll pull up a photo of Golux from this blog about two screens down.
Golux was a gentle soul, tending towards the solemnly thoughtful in her responses: she always had to think about things for a minute or so before she did them. She used to sit out in the back courtyard, watching the tendrils of water slowly creep across the paving stones from where I'd been watering the potplants. She could sit there for ten minutes at a time, her ears at an angle denoting extreme interest, but eventually all she'd do would be to put out a paw and touch the water, gently, in an experimental mode. She was, conversely, a talented sneak-thief, with an amazingly ability to climb onto the kitchen counter after food with such nonchalance that I wouldn't register the movement despite being a few metres away and looking in approximately the right direction.
She was a very pretty cat; she had the dramatic Gothy eye-makeup which comes with that silver tabby coat, and her white bits - paws, shirt front, one front leg, as though she'd stepped into a paint pot accidentally - were always immaculate. Her little pink nose was inordinately cute, but of course ended up killing her, given its incompatibility with African sunlight. I was particularly fond of the black tips to her ears, which gave her a sharply defined silhouette - I think my header photo was taken by Dylan, it's one of my favourites of her because the tips are so clearly pronounced, like a caracal's. She always sat very neatly, with her tail curled around her feet.
She was very much my cat, although technically the Evil Landlord and I co-owned her and Todal; she spent a lot of time sitting on my desk, and she slept on my bed every night, usually joining me just after I'd switched off the light. She'd come through the bathroom window, and I could always hear her approach because she talked to herself, a succession of gentle, conversational, slightly plaintive yowls all across the courtyard, in through the window, and across the room to my bed. We used to think of it as her existential angst - sometimes she'd wander around the back courtyard meeping gently to herself for no apparent reason other than requesting from the universe some revelation about the meaning of life. If you put her in a box to take her to the vet (which was always difficult, her command of body language was exquisite and she'd make a break for it the instant you even thought about boxing her) she'd commentate continuously all the way there in chesty, baritone, Siamese-sounding yowls. She always held a grudge longer than the other cats - days, often, before she'd forgive you for a vet trip or a de-fleaing. There were unfortunately a lot of vet trips, as we combated the cancerous spots as well as we could; we kept up the treatments over seven or eight years, giving her a lot of life she wouldn't have otherwise had, so I feel as though her final end was only after a hard fight in which we did everything we could.
I didn't take Golux with me when I moved out of the Evil Landlord's place: we knew she had limited time left, and I didn't want to put her through the stress of relocating her. I think it was the right choice, even though I missed her a lot. Eckie and Danielle gave her a safe and tranquil and loving place to end her days, and I'm enormously grateful to them for looking after her, and for making the difficult and necessary call to let her go. I hope that she enriched their lives as much as she did, in her quiet way, mine. The full quote from Thirteen Clocks in my subject line is the Golux speaking, and reads: "I can feel a thing I cannot touch and touch a thing I cannot feel. The first is sad and sorry, the second is your heart." She did that.
I have found my own reactions to be strangely complicated. On the one hand this seems fairly standard - students will demonstrate, bless them, and we've had a good couple of decades of relative ideological apathy, so it's rather reassuring to see that the current generation is capable of this sort of generalised moral passion. I do wish the protesters wouldn't break things, but I know how mobs work, particularly when passions are high and when there's a whole entrenched history of disadvantage vs privilege embodied in the buildings of our campus. And their thesis - that fees are too high - is absolutely valid. Our fees are too damned high - in my job I see a continual succession of these poor kids in the direst financial straits, struggling to make it work under the double whammy of high fees and under-preparation by Matric. Our fees should bloody well be protested. And while it's a lot more complicated than the students would like to believe (if we cut fees as demanded we'd go under, as far as I can tell, and the institution, far from screwing the working poor with a jaunty laugh, does put a buttload of money into financial aid), with any luck the nationwide nature of the protests will be enough to force the government to at least divert some of their corruption earmarks into our severely under-subsidised tertiary education.
What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the trigger effect of all this. I started university in South Africa in 1988, still under the apartheid government. While I was possibly the world's most unpoliticised and oblivious undergrad, and experienced only the trailing tail-end of the student protests, there were still marches on campus in my first couple of years, and protesters tangling with the police water-cannon on Adderley Street (the purple shall govern! Ye gods, I was only hazily aware of the whole Purple Rain protest at the time, and a quick google reveals that I had remembered the details perfectly accurately. It clearly made an impression.) The police cars all over campus yesterday and Monday, and the burning barricades, and the footage with flash-bangs and loud-hailers outside the admin block on Tuesday night, even the raised fists and shouting, catapulted me nastily and viscerally back into that far more tense and horrible time. Let's just say that students vs. government has some unpleasant historical precedents in this country, shall we?
So protesters are hard-coded as "legitimate" to me in a way which actually transcends the validity of their current point of protest. It engenders a cold, sinking feeling to have our current government by implication put into the same frame of reference as the bad old apartheid one. (I had an identically emotional response to the police casspirs in District 9). And if nothing else, my Cherished Institution has handled the whole thing with conspicuous tone-deafness, to haul in the police so early on in the process, to descend immediately into "this is illegal" in a way which instantly overwrote "let us discuss the valid point you have here", and to re-create with such fidelity the traditional battle lines of police and stun guns and armoured vehicles as the threatening backdrop to student protest. It's perfectly obvious to the most untrained eye that that was never going to go down well.
In all sorts of weird ways South African apartheid was never my battle, but in all sorts of weird ways it is, not just because I was there for its fall and live here now - because these are my students, and the effects of apartheid are still playing out in their lives, and one upshot of my job is that I feel protective and worried about them, and very invested in their happiness and success. Some of them have crossed lines they shouldn't have in these protests, and are going to face potentially life-ruining consequences. We have had lectures disrupted, and exams might still be affected, and I know that I'm going to be dealing with emotional and physical fallout from these protests as students wander through my office attempting to unravel the ramifications for their studies. And I can only hope that it's all worth it, that it works, that our thrice-damned government will remember its roots enough to respond appropriately.
And because that's all too damned serious, I shall end with entirely another sense of emotional trigger that is equally about history and investment and struggle and moral polarities: the new Star Wars trailer made me cry.
Fortunately, for woes such as the above there are marshmallow owls. Marshmowls. A concept so utterly logical it's unthinkable that no-one has thunk it before. I have somewhat repentantly stolen this off a Tumblr blog called Courtart, and suggest you follow the link both to assuage my guilt, and because there's an animated gif version where they bop.
She captions this "The rare, medium, and well-done marshmowls." Of course.
I'm being very bad at this blogging thing at the moment, I don't seem to have the energy. However, a few actual posts were perpetrated in the month of March, with attendant convoluted subject line references, as follows. (I include the actual wording of the subject line as an innovative addition to these little round-ups by special request of the Jo).
- 7th March: "rocking the Lawful Good". This doesn't need attribution, it's not a quote, and if any of my readers don't by this stage get the D&D alignment reference and its particular application to my psyche, I give up.
- 8th March: "the interconnectedness of everything". This is actually a partial paraphrase of Dirk Gently, I never remember the exact wording accurately. (Apparently it's "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.") I must re-read those, they're fun, and Douglas Adams can't blindside me by suddenly pitching up with something terminal on account of how he's already dead. This is at least predicable.
- 10th March: "I came, I saw, Ipad." That was a horrible piece of lame wordplay and I should be ashamed. Also, I very much doubt that Julius Caesar ever actually said "Veni, vedi, vici". It has "apocryphal" written all over it. The Ipad, on the other hand, is a marvellous gadget and I'm really enjoying it, even if the lack of actual hard drive, as a concept, makes me flail around a bit.
- 15th March: "! GET! KNOCKED! DOWN! butIgetupagain". Now I have the bloody Chumbawamba ear-worm again. Thanks for that, meticulous referencing. That wretched song ("Tubthumper", for the sake of full attribution and in case you weren't paying attention) is more damned fun than it has any right to be.
- 17th March: "this vast and brooding spirit". Oh, now, that's interesting. *waves the Red Flag of Over-Analysis Alert*. The quote is from the poem about Cecil John Rhodes which adorns the Rhodes Memorial, and which incidentally also formed the basis for a more than usually way-out Call of Cthulhu module I and Bumpycat wrote back in the day, featuring Rhodes's negative energy centred on the memorial as a blot on the fabric of reality which opened portals to Bad Stuff. (I don't do postcolonialism, except apparently in my role-playing modules, where I've done it several times). It's also a misquote, owing to the extreme dodginess of my memory: the actual phrasing is "the immense and brooding spirit". The post is talking about Batman and whinging about the excessive broodiness of The Dark Knight Rises, so as a subject line it's fairly apt, but I remember typing in the (mis)quote more or less as a knee-jerk and then being tickled by how actually appropriate it was to my argument in the review. The full poem reads: "The immense and brooding spirit still / Shall quicken and control. / Living he was the land, and dead, / His soul shall be her soul!" In terms of Batman's identification with Gotham and the upshot of the movie, that's pretty much exactly it.
- 19th March: "meanwhile, he has built a remote-controlled duck". Actually attributed in the post: quote from the article on useless machines which had endeared itself to me at the time. Even more pleasingly surreal out of context.
- 26th March: "I have a bad feeling about this...". This was a post about a Star-Wars-Lego-themed cocktail party. If you do not recognise the quote you are no friend of mine, and need to slink off into a corner somewhere and consider your sins. Good grief. (We had the first movie playing silently during the party, causing a lot of us to sit around watching it and supplying either the actual dialogue, or new, improved dialogue (mostly Stv). When everyone had gone the EL and Sven and I watched The Empire Strikes Back and argued about abysmal Empire tactics on Hoth. I love my friends, and am fairly confident that none of you are currently sitting in a corner considering your sins).
I want to have several cups of tea, a good cry, and an evening of vegging out on the sofa in front of something incredibly Hollywood and fluffy. Except I can't, because they stole the TV. It'll have to be the old fallbacks, viz. Skyrim and fanfic. Anything that distracts from the feeling of complete helplessness in the face of evil.
If I meep and tremble at odd stimuli a bit in the near future, please don't hold it against me. I have too high a bloody empathy stat for this job, is all.
Also, I like the name Toothgnip. It's fun to say. I may have to acquire another cat simply so I can christen it Toothgnip.
Mostly, however, it's amazingly comforting that I can chalk up the state of mind resulting from another exhausting day in a job I hate to space wizard battles. Explains a lot.
Thus, the usual scorecard is somewhat unbalanced in its 2011 iteration. It also completely ignores global trends and disasters to focus, as usual, on the purely personal. Thusly:
- Things achieved by me this year: international travel on my Cherished Institution's dime. Survival of life-threatening illness. Survival of concomitant post-illness chronic fatigue. Invitation to give a keynote paper at a conference next year, albeit a small conference. Invitation to submit paper to special edition of journal, on Miyazaki, so score. Relative success at doing my job despite being absent from it for about three months, and validation from superiors in proof of same. With assistance of therapist and my, as usual, incredibly wonderful friends both real and virtual, something vaguely approaching mental health in endurance of all of the above.
- Things discovered this year: Dragon Age, Eureka, Lillian Jackson Braun, She Wants Revenge, retro Golden Age superhero comics, the Avengers, Skyrim, buying a new computer specifically for gaming, Dark Angel, Melbourne, the reality of deep vein thrombosis on long haul flights, compression socks, anti-depressants, Questionable Content, bras that fit, Lego, Dollhouse, growing out my fringe.
- Things not achieved by me: as usual, fleeing the country, crushing academia beneath my booted heel, enough writing, enough exercise. Any of the end-2010 resolutions about having a better year. Most importantly, the actual writing any of the above papers owing to aforementioned fatigue. Possibly as a result of all the therapy, I am bizarrely inclined to actually cut myself some slack for this.
- Resolutions for the new year: attempt to continue the process of cutting myself slack on the fatigue, while simultaneously resolving both to cautiously exercise towards actual health, and not to use fatigue and Skyrim as excuses for protcrastination. Writing of kick-butt papers variously for the journal special issue, for the May Harry Potter conference, and for two additional fairy-tale conferences in August/September. Fiendish political strategising to bend the structure and expectations of this job to my inflexible will. More socialising with all the lovely friends I've hardly seen owing to fatigue and inexorable hedgehogginess.
Anne McCaffrey I stumbled on all by myself. I was perennially broke in undergrad, owing to non-wealthy parents and the horrible exchange rate between Zim and South Africa, and insufficient gumption for it to have occurred to me to go out and find a part-time job. I used to haunt second hand book stores, a habit picked up from schooldays. There was a little junk shop in Mowbray, just the Tugwell side of Shoprite, that had a single shelf of books. One Friday afternoon I wandered past there and found something called Dragonsong. There was also the sequel, Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern, but I was being too cautious with money to buy them both. I took Dragonsong back to my res room and devoured it whole that evening, in a state of suspended enchantment that I suspect was shared by a lot of you who are female and met McCaffrey in your teens. The wish-fulfilment elements of the fire lizards, the fascination of the setting, the whole musical element, Menolly's growth out of her marginalised life - I desired more, passionately.
I couldn't go back and buy the sequel because I left for the airport to go back home to Zim for the vac really early on Saturday morning. The desperate need for more of the same world led me to overcome the mouse-like introversion of my first year, and actually voluntarily speak to the girl in the res room next door, who was likewise a Zimbabwean. She was leaving a few days later. I gave her money for the book, and asked her to buy it for me and bring it up to Zim, which she cheerfully agreed to do.
I remember this all astonishingly vividly, given that it happened over twenty years ago. Her house wasn't far from ours in Harare, up on a hill; I remember finding my way there one evening, and having a perfunctory chat with the girl, whose name I can't remember; I have a vivid mental image of her rummaging around in her not-yet-unpacked suitcase to find the book for me. I must have hit her for it the instant she got back. The whole episode is outlined in my memory by the tense, thrumming expectation of actually getting my hands on that book, of continuing the immersion I'd started a few weeks before and from which I'd been horribly excluded. I don't even remember reading Dragonsinger for the first time, but boy howdy, do I remember desiring it.
A lot of Pern is, objectively speaking, fairly grotty: its world-building is prone to holes, McCaffrey's storytelling suffers at time from pacing issues, her prose is occasionally awkward, and she tends to recycle plots. A lot of the dragon/human interaction is frankly the stuff of adolescent fantasy, and the sexual politics are downright dodgy at times. Notwithstanding all of this, it's a world that for a lot of fantasy geeks has profoundly shaped our experience of the genre. The Elizabeth Bear take on animal-influenced sex may point to the huge problems with McCaffrey's over-romanticised version, but Pern's dragons perfectly encapsulate the profound human desire at the heart of a hell of a lot of fantasy, which is for an ideal of communication and connection with non-human creatures. The novels explore, transform and enable, at base, the traditional adolescent female love of horses, with all that that relationship allows in the way of validation and power. Pern's semi-medieval, semi-sf environments cunningly use elements of both discourses to both challenge and empower their protagonists, who tend to be real people, individual and compelling even when, like Lessa, they're not entirely likeable, and whose construction represents huge leaps for the representation of female characters at the time the novels were written. I subject my fantasy/sf collection to periodic weeding, lest the bookshelf crisis become critical, but there's still a row of Pern novels there, and every now and then I re-read them, because they're comfortable friends and still hold the resonance of their meaning to a much younger me.
Anne McCaffrey's recent death is thus a huge sadness. I can't always say that her books have unqualified literary value, but their unqualified significance to me, and to people like me, is never in doubt. She was an icon in the field. I'm sorry she's gone.
For me Ankh-Morpork is Pratchett's greatest creation, the central trope of the Discworld - a multi-centuried, unabashed urban sprawl whose existence adds point and ferocity to his ongoing cultural critique. The city is the means by which he deconstructs not only the limp utopianism of mainstream fantasy, but issues of human fallibility, good and evil and the impossibility of their simplicity in a complicated modern world. I cherish an affection for the wizards and for Moist von Lipwig (partially, I think, because Going Postal has such an elegant plot), but Vimes is the sword-point of the Ankh-Morpork stories. He's an amazing construct, even more so than Moist because he's older, more experienced, the accumulation of a particularly driven and compelling experience of hardship, disillusionment and redemption.
He has also matured beautifully over the Watch series - reading them all together like that makes you appreciate not just the development of the character, but the development of Pratchett's style and punch; moments in the first couple of novels falter, but the voice and purpose are always strong and true. The Watch series steadily grows in sophistication and believability, peaking in the essentially political explorations of power and agency and race in Fifth Elephant and Nightwatch and Thud. (I also love the Watch presence in Monstrous Regiment, but it's an outsider perspective on a cameo appearance). Thud also dealt beautifully with Vimes's new fatherhood status, and I was really looking forward to seeing where that went as Young Sam grew up.
And yet that concentrated re-read is also a worrying perspective: my expectations of Snuff were tinged with concern even before I cracked it open. I also re-read Unseen Academicals, the last adult Discworld novel before Snuff; it's an Ankh-Morpork novel, but not a Watch novel, and it represents, I think, a drop-off. The story, and the fun poked at football and the University, are entertaining and real, but the novel feels scattered and overstuffed, its themes and ideas all over the place and not always properly developed. (The whole Jools/modelling/dwarf armour bit? very funny, but I'm not sure what it's doing there). It felt like Pratchett, though; the prose and bite and people were unmistakeable, clearly the master driving the stagecoach even if the horses were tending to shy and bolt and the whole equipage threatened at some moments to career off the road at a tight corner.
Snuff didn't actually feel like Pratchett. It was clearly a Pratchett plot, pillorying the aristocracy with verve and accuracy, and continuing the novels' ongoing exploration of race and prejudice. (One of its more amusing, if sadly under-developed, intertexts is Jane Austen). But the prose isn't Pratchett, and nor, more tragically, are the characters. I barely recognised Vimes; he has a hesitation, an internal lack of certainty which feel simply wrong, and his relationship with Sibyl, hitherto always a matter more of implication than of actual representation, is over-described, verging on the mawkish. Young Sam becomes an excuse for toilet humour, which the Discworld has up until now always mercifully relegated to glancing suggestion. I don't associate Pratchett with obvious fart jokes, nor do I wish to.
And this last, like the Vimes/Sybil relationship, comes down, quite simply, to writing: it's not the story elements that are the problem, it's how they're handled. Pratchett's prose has always been restrained and muscular, his comic timing dependent on perfect control, language welded to purpose. There's none of that here. The prose frankly wanders; characters go off into long speeches, which is the antithesis of the punchy and economical storytelling of earlier novels. We are continually given exposition which describes characters' internal life rather than, as before, being able to apprehend it through their actions. I itched, while reading, to go through a lot of these sentences and reduce them to actual Pratchett with a red pen. He's in there somewhere, but only in momentary glimmers.
And, of course, the giant world-supporting elephant in the room is Pratchett's illness. I love this man and his books. His world and ideas have given me enormous amounts of unalloyed pleasure and insight, as they have to his huge fandom at large. I have lost count of the number of times I have read the Discworld novels; I will return to them for the rest of my life. And it's precisely this affection and respect which make it difficult to simply say that the Alzheimers is, of course, making a difference: that this is not the Pratchett we knew. If you read across random reviews of the last few novels there's a reticence in them which skirts around the idea of a loss of control. He is no longer able to type now, he dictates to a typist; that has to, surely, change the nature of your relationship with the words? But to come out and say that he's losing his grip on the literary magic feels like a betrayal of the novels' comic status, an admission of the tragedy of his illness which, by being spoken, becomes all too real.
And I deny that. If the Discworld stands for anything, it's for using the twin lenses of fantasy and comedy to look reality firmly in the face. I will not pretend that this novel is up to Pratchett's usual standard as a way of pretending that, as his readers, we are not confronting the horribly unjust reality of his disintegration. We are. To deny that loss is to betray the integrity of the man and his creation.
I will continue to buy anything Pratchett writes for as long as he cares to go on writing. I will do it because he's Pratchett; I will read his books for the occasional moment when the unalloyed man shines through, when the prose and punch rise out of the wandering and click into place. I will mourn when he stops writing - hell, I'm crying as I write this - but the reality is that to read this novel is already to mourn.
There's the old saw that "home is where, if you have to go back, they have to take you in". If a new Brit or US or Aussie regime suddenly expelled all you SA expats, you could come back here. It wouldn't be the place you left, but it would hold out at least a vague hope of employment, enough continuity for a pension, an education for your kids. At least as it currently stands you could build a life here, and have a reasonable expectation that it would endure. (xavierxalfonso hit it when he talked about somewhere to grow old). It may be hopeless idealism or ostrichism on my part to see it in those terms, of course, but I live here: to me, it feels viable.
You can't say that about Zim. Its changes have been sudden and shocking and arbitrary and cruel enough that it no longer offers any sense of continuity, and to be effective, "home" and "nation" have to have that - they can change, and everywhere does, but they need to endure. Somewhere in my head, on some odd level, "nation" is not actually about a community of shared life experience, but equates to "shelter", to "belonging" in a sense which is ultimately protective and continuing. Zimbabwe no longer offers that. South Africa might, but it doesn't belong to me.
Nonetheless, the effect of the dissolution of my "nation" has made me value nationality rather than reject it; I can't have it, but it's still important and desirable. Probably because I can't have it, and I know how aching a loss its absence - on a completely different level from "I left it and it's changed" - has created. On a weird sort of level, I have no right to take for granted the shelter offered by any country, including my own. And now that I think it through, obviously for me "nationality" has a resonance of legitimate expectation, of "take for granted". It's about security above anything else.
Fortunately security can come in all sorts of flavours, and if I can't identify with nation, I certainly identify with people. You lot, for example :> - both in Cape Town and in cyberspace. I'm not sure I agree that nation is no longer relevant, but I certainly agree that community has come to mean a far more diffuse and abstract thing than it ever did in the age of the village. And that, too, has its poignancies and pains, because on some level of community it's really just about someone to give you a hug when you're down. I've just delivered my mother to the airport, and I won't see her again until April next year. I've spent the last couple of hours in tears, because already - and probably particularly because I'm exhausted and post-serious-illness and not quite myself - I miss her like an ache. I'm too bloody old to miss my mum, but dammit, I do. And part of that weepiness is because I watch her struggle off into the distances of the airport with her huge suitcase, and I know that she goes gallantly back to a home, and a life, which is characterised by the same visceral loss and undefined rootlessness as mine. Except worse, because she's older, and Zim took far more away from her than it ever did from me. And it's not fair. Dammit. It's not. Nations should endure.
- We had a truly lovely meal on Thursday night, at Park's Menu, the Korean restaurant in Durban Rd. My Salty Cracker review is here. They are criminally underattended, the place was almost empty, and it's tragic, because the food is excellent and the vibe is wonderful. Go ye forth, all ye local witterers, and dine there often. It's also ridiculously good value for money.
- Just for first_fallen, Say It With Llamas. Llamas are oddly adorable.
- Lev Grossman in defence of genre. He makes intelligent points. I hadn't put two and two together about the Modernists, but I can absolutely see it, they were instrumental in creating that sense that story and genre are illegitimate literary pursuits. It strikes me that this is probably why I never liked the Modernists.
- MicFic is coming to an end, so this is my last one. I am sad. While the discipline of a short piece every two weeks has brought my various Godzilla-like hang-ups about writing bounding out of the woodwork beating their chests, I've also enjoyed it and it's been very good for me. Woe.
Tonight the Usual Suspects, in the safety and comfort of our kitchen, are going to try and concoct something resembling crispy Chinese duck with pancakes. Don't try this at home, kids.
I'm not sure if I should be glad or sorry that I never read any of her novels when I was actually a kid - if they would have been a richer or poorer experience than reading them as an adult. On the whole, I don't think it matters. I can't at this stage even remember who introduced me to her novels and which one I read first, but it was sometime in my first few years of university. (Vague suspicion rests on virtualkathy, and possibly Fire and Hemlock, or The Power of Three. I know the Evil Landlord hit me with Archer's Goon at some stage, but I think it was later). She's always been the author whose next book I will automatically buy, without question, in hardback if necessary, and which I will automatically enjoy. She never had off days. Each novel was a perfect, quirky, original, meaningful thing.
DWJ is the ultimate literary exemplar of the thing that Buffy got right, what JK Rowling dreams of being, vainly, in her most aspirational moments - fantasy that uses magic and symbol intelligently and with considerable emotional reality to talk about human experiences, issues, angsts. The Ogre Downstairs is the perfect Difficult Step-parent novel, through the lens of an enchanted chemistry set. Archer's Goon is the ultimate sibling rivalry cautionary tale. Black Maria is about emotional manipulation and gender stereotyping. They're brilliantly written, sharp and humorous and warm, and jam-packed with ideas - she tucks away in odd narrative corners whole edifices of fancy around which a lesser writer could construct an entire novel.
It's difficult to say which are my favourite DWJ books, because as I think of them, each of them becomes the obvious candidate. I have a very soft spot for Chrestomanci, the dashing, witheringly sarcastic enchanter in the midst of alternate realities, and the rabble of gifted and chaotic children who surround him (and as one of which he started himself). The Chrestomanci regulation of magic is a more intelligent and Victorian precursor to Rowling's Ministry of Magic, and has a far more real sense of the costs of power, control and responsibility. But I am also enamoured of the chatty, down-to-earth witchery of Sophie and her sisters in the Howl's Moving Castle series, as well as Howl himself, and of the beautiful, devastating critique of bad fantasy and bad teaching in The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequel. And, of course, the magic-infested fantasy convention in Deep Secret makes me incredibly happy, as does the alternate-worldery of The Merlin Conspiracy. Also, salamanders. And Minnie the elephant.
I give up. I love them all. I re-read them often, and in fact over the last week or so I've just ambled contentedly through the Howl series yet again. The long row of DWJ books in my shelves is a storehouse of treasures, an old friend, a magic box which I open to connect me with someone who I wish I could have met: a warm, vibrant, vital, slightly mad mind with an earthy sense of reality and a sharp and compassionate eye. I can't bear to think that my DWJ collection is now complete, that there will never be another new book from her. The rising young stars of the fantasy genre will have to scramble to match her. But they'll never be her. She was an original.
Oh, lord. South Africa apparently feels the need to leap on the broody, glittery Twilight bandwagon and produce vampire movies of its own, presumably on the principle that if District 9 can make a roaring success out of South Africanising genre films, so can anyone. And thus we rejoice in the possession of Eternity, which I know about because a marketing email popped up in my campus inbox this morning. (And what's with that? are they spamming local universities, or was it a pin-pointedly accurate hit on someone who teaches vampire movies to SA students? if the latter, I darkly suspect that someone I taught is on the production team.)
Um. I am actually torn between "this doesn't look terrible" on sheer production values, and "this looks terrible" in terms of pretty much everything else. From the limited synopsis/trailer info this isn't really Twilight, it's more the sensibility of Blade or Underworld or even Angel, although this last may be only because they seem to be adhering to the "lame and his hair sticks up" trope rather more fannishly than is strictly necessary. (See poster). But any of the above simply means that, unlike District 9 and pretty much as usual, SA is coming to the blockbuster clichés a decade late and a dollar short. This is done. This is done done done to a crispy done turn in a hot oven for far too long. It's dried out and unappetising. Urban setting, check. Broody vampires with guns, check. Looking for love, even1. Goth babes, check. Vampire power struggles, check. We can walk in sunlight, check. If it wants to be the vampire District 9, it's missed the whole, central, amazing point of the film, which was that it didn't just adopt the tropes, it adapted genre tropes to the SA setting, illuminating and refreshing both setting and tropes thereby.
I may be maligning this movie horribly on insufficient information, but neither synopsis nor trailer seem to suggest any attempt whatsoever to make this a South African vampire movie rather than a vampire movie simply set in Joburg. Vampires are about power; power in South Africa is inextricably about race. Almost all the vampires seem to be white. What's with that? is the film doing that simply because the stereotype says vampires are pale, or are they actually going to examine their assumptions there? are vampires the ultimate colonial power? what about African legends of supernatural monsters with affinity for blood or night? where's the impundulu? the asanbosam? is this building up into a postcolonial rant? aargh, it is. My department has infected me.
I am disappointed in the preliminary way in which this film presents itself. I have low expectations of originality or interest. I may watch it when it comes out, but I'll be seriously surprised if there's any substance here.
1 I recently came to a sudden awareness about vampires and their love-lives (while watching, naturally, The Vampire Diaries). It's perfectly simple, really. Being bitten by a vampire clearly arrests your emotional development completely at the point at which you were chomped. The world is full of 300-year-old vampire adolescents because they were all 17 when they were bitten, and they haven't advanced any. Clearly the teen hormones are still seething around their systems and neutralising the effects of several centuries of actual experience, leading to tumultuous world-ending love affairs, abysmal communication skills and a tendency to emo brooding. It explains everything.