Archive for December, 2011

Who Cares What She Does — Make Her Nekkid!

December 29th, 2011

[ “Ker-pow! Women kick back against comic-book sexism

UK-made, female-driven anthology Bayou Arcana is causing a stir for more than just its haunting images and storylines.” ]

Bayou Arcana, means New Orleans and Louisiana, one of my homes.  It’s almost impossible to imagine New Orleans without Coco Robicheaux, who died last month, who was the embodiment of Bayeau Arcana if there was a living one.

One of the most interesting things about Bayou Arcana is that the writers are all male and the artists are all female, so how the female characters look is decided by women, not men.

This is a group of creative people who are positively pushing back against the long running, ever growing trend  that leaves women out of the various sets of the sf/f, supernatural, horror, movie, comix, print and game worlds.  Here’s a pull from the long story about the many different gender bias and sexism in these areas, particularly in comix, in the U.K. Guardian linked to above:

[ " As far as the wider comic book culture is concerned, many female comic book fans have stories of being ignored, harassed, or treated with hostility in comic book stores, and there's certainly persistent gendered bullying online." The planned petition comes in the wake of another earlier this year which expressed reader outrage at the lack of female writers and characters at DC Comics, which owns rights to characters such as Superman and Batman

The proportion of female creators in its comics plunged from 12% to 1% when it relaunched its entire line of superhero titles.

More than 4,500 fans called on DC to "do something about these appalling, offensive numbers or you will only continue to see your sales numbers plummet".

DC insisted it was taking their concerns "very seriously" and pointed to writers such as Nicola Scott, Felicia D Henderson and Gail Simone. It also highlighted female DC characters such as Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Catwoman and Batwoman, who was reinvented as a lesbian.

Comics bloggers such as Vanessa Gabriel say, however, that both DC and Marvel – which together dominate the market – have been slow to do more than pay lip service to female readers. " ]

Another fellow who is doing his bit is here, in this blog post, Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits:

[ " The brilliant tumbler feed Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor has inspired me to add my two cents to the discussion.

Why does my opinion matter? I’m an armorer. I make actual armor that people wear when they hit each other with swords. When making armor I have to strike a balance between comfort, protection, range of motion, and appearance. My experience has made me more than a little opinionated on the subject of fantasy armor.

I intend to set the internet straight. See below for how to do it wrong, how to do it right, and why you might care. " ]

Women alone can’t change the way women are expected to appear in these fields, which in turn then, makes it so easy for the men in the field to dismiss them, harrass them and otherwise remove the agency of half the world, giving them only one role and one role — sex object.   As with making a culture of rape socially unacceptable everywhere, men must be a part of the push to change that. These developments are a part of that, which is heartening — a good way to close a year and open a new one.

Darkness Falls Early: Reading the Winter Solstice

December 26th, 2011

Penman, Sharon Kay. (1995) When Christ and His Saints Slept.  Ballantine.

Darkness Falls Early: Reading in the Winter Solstice


At the end of the summer I read Lionheart (2011), the latest in Sharon Kay Penman’s series set in the era of Henry the II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their progenitors and their progeny.  It was so interesting I looked up the novels that came before, Devil’s Brood (2008), Time and Chance (2002) and now, the first one, When Christ and His Saints Slept (1995). It’s odd to read a series backwards, but that’s how it works these days, when an author’s earlier books take more effort to get hold of than we might like.

Lionheart follows the crowned Richard into the east on Crusade. Almost all the women who are part of the previous novels’ action are still alive.  Those who were born during the course of the series are now adults and often monarchs themselves. Devil’s Brood brilliantly describes the political and family causes prompting King Henry II’s sons and his Queen to rebellion, and his sons to further betray each other.  But, In my opinion, Time and Chance is the best written of the four.  That may be because Time and Chance covers what we already think we know about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, including the Thomas Becket affair, so the events and characters are familiar to both author and reader. But Penman’s Time and Chance is not the plays, Becket and Lion in Winter, or the subsequent films, the historicity of both more than questionable. In the course of researching these books Penman speaks on her website and in interviews of how much she learned is wrong about what we think we know about these characters whose names are familiar even these many hundreds of years later. One of the reasons we have misinformation is political. Then, as much as now, interested parties who could write, who were hostile to the Plantagenets, such as the French, used sexual slander and all the rest of the weapons in the political weapons arsenal to descredit their rivals and enemies.

It’s difficult, submerging oneself as a reader into When Christ And His Saints Slept, the earliest book in the series. It’s hard to know who is who, or even who is a fictional character. It turns out none of them are fictional, with the significant exception of a character who continues throughout the series, a series which at the time of this novel’s writing, the author didn’t know she was going to write. Another difficulty, which is in no way the author’s fault since these are the historically recorded movers and shakers of the events, is that so many of them share the same names, whether monarchs, royal bastards, high ecclesiatic officials, and are not always of different generations either. Then, Penman  made a compositional glitch by writing a prologue set some decades before the novel proper opens, then opening the first chapter in another decade with yet other people we not only don’t know, but whose relationships to those in the prologue we don’t know either.  These are the families and vassals who make the twenty years long civil war, the bloody conflict between Henry I’s nephew, Stephen, and the King’s legitimate daughter, Maud, the former Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and now Countess of Anjou.

However, that we don’t know much about these people, the times, or this 12th century English civil war, will be remedied by the time this novel is finished. Additionally it brilliantly sets up what will happen throughout the following volumes, though half of those volumes weren’t planned to be written when this one was (one more at least is in the process of being written). Once we’ve dug our way through this prologue and the next 40 pages or so, the reader is stabilized as to who the people are and where in geography and when in time they are. Unlike the unfortunates in the early pages who chose a berth on the White Ship, we’re sailing on smooth waters, treated to Christmas Courts, freezing rain, icy snow, fireplaces and wine, perfect Winter Solstice reading, as are the subsequent volumes.

It’s a superb story, filled with colorful, fascinating personalities who scheme against each other, love each other, hate each other, sometimes simultaneously. Henry II is born within the first pages of the novel. The war that is his parents’ marriage, his divided loyalty and love, twists this future king’s character, the damage of which will roll down the decades. We witness Eleanor and Henry’s meeting: like Johnny Cash and June Carter, they “fell into a burning ring of fire.”  There are the splendid early days of Henry II’s early friendship with Becket.  Yes, no matter how long ago certain things, like falling in love or in friendship, and the bitter pain of betrayal by lover or friend, are the same then as they are now.

Penman’s research is responsible and thorough. She’s got the tenacity to keep working on her narrative until these long ago, now obscure historical events and people are comprehensible to us in the 21st century. Penman is particularly good at portraying the strength and agency of all her female characters, of whatever station and condition, without making them behave like late 20th century, 21st century American women, or even think like them. They have different personalities and individual characters, whether of high rank or low. Starting with When Christ and Etc. each volume in this series presents the waste of women’s political talents denied by their gender. It becomes a theme winding its way through all the series.

In When Christ Etc. this theme is deep and broad: Henry I granted the throne of England to his daughter, Maud, formerly the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry I’s nephew, Stephen, steals the crown on the pretext that bloodshed would be inevitable if Maud’s crowned. Stephen invokes the period’s unquestioned belief in women’s incapacity to rule in their own right, which is founded upon both religion and, “No man will follow a woman to war.” But Stephen lacks the hardness of character necessary for a monarch to hold power year after year. Maud has a tribe of loyal, illegitimate brothers, for Henry I was profligate with his affections, siring many bastards, whom he married into wealthy, powerful families, tying these powerful vassals all the more tightly to his line. Thus it is is Stephen who made bloody civil war inevitable because he siezed Maud’s legitimately granted crown..

The irony contained in this theme is further deepened. Stephen, unable to quench the fires of rebellion in favor of Maud, resorts to his own wife to do it for him. He sends sweet, docile, loving Queen Matilda into the field to lead her own family and vassals, who seize the port of Dover for Stephen. Successful in no small part because of the devotion all ranks of Matilda’s men give her, the Queen continues to other political successes.

As for the series as a whole, a reader who is interested in literary and cultural medieval history of Europe can’t help recalling that Chrétien de Troyes was from France’s north, and he served at the court of Eleanor’s daughter in Aquitaine.  The tales of those extraordinary Plantegenets, Anjous and Aquitaines of the 12th century provided him no little inspiration, we must think, just as his Romances provided some inspiration, when coupled with the real life events of these people, for Penman.  And in the period when darkness falls so early, can there be better entertainment than a series of Romances, then or now?

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

December 22nd, 2011

Harkness, Deborah. (2011) A Discovery of Witches. Vol. 1, All Souls Trilogy. Penguin, USA, NY.

Trade publication December 27th. The All Souls Trilogy’s second volume, Shadow of Night, comes out this summer of 2012. A Discovery has been optioned by Warner Bros. for a film treatment.

A copy of A Discovery of Witches paperback is available from Penguin.  Just comment below, I’ll organize a drawing of the commentators’ names, announce the winner here, and forward your contact info to the Penguin publicity department.

There are no spoilers in the following thoughts about A Discovery of Witches, or at least no more than what a reader finds in cover and jacket copy.

Cross-posted to Fox Home and Fox Hall.

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A Discovery of Witches is an engrossing science fiction & fantasy novel, as opposed to an engrossing science fiction or fantasy novel, because it is both science fiction and fantasy. Its only contemporary rival for excellence in this small science fiction and fantasy crossbreed is this year’s World Fantasy Award winner, Who Fears Death (2010, DAW) by Nnedi Okorafor.

Within A Discovery’s pages the reader will engage with the history of science, philosophical and alchemical treatises, Darwin and DNA, political and material history, medieval Romances and their nexis with fantastic literature, and the great Elizabethan playwrights.  The author’s day job is as professor of history at the University of Southern California. Her scholarly work includes The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007, Yale University Press), which was the winner of the Pfizer Prize for Best Book in the History of Science from 2005-2007, presented by the History of Science Society. The reader doesn’t have to know this about the author, however, for A Discovery to emit all the allure of old jewels and the enticement of bright chemicals in combination with precious metals.

Diana Bishop is our protagonist, a young woman with whom an ancient vampire falls in love, in one of the reading rooms of Oxford’s Bodelian Library. So, it’s hard then, not to have Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight come to mind.

Sarah Seltzer at Alternet recently tried to get at aspects of Twilight that some adult readers find troubling:

“Violent Vampire Sex, Demon-Babies and Overwhelming Female Desire. Twilight is saturated with sexist tropes–to the point of being disturbing. But that disturbing element is compelling, too . . . . “

 . . . . But as for the substance of her wants, therein lies the perversely haunting twist. I’d argue that Bella’s desires are direct responses to the patriarchy we actually live in. In fact, Meyer has created for her heroine an inverted version of our unjust society. In this invented, inverted world, Bella is allowed to want sex, and vocalize it, and initiate it, while her partner is the gatekeeper who makes sure she is safe and married before she gets “hurt.” In her world, the men around her urge her to abort her fetus for her own safety, but she gets to “choose” to deliver it even though it kills her. In her world, her boyfriend can urge her to attend college and better herself while she can push for an early marriage–and be right! In her world, she can reject her body and trade it in for a new one that is agile, strong, lithe. Her choices are consistently to fall into the arms of the patriarchy and trust that it will catch her, and her faith is validated: she gets a perfect husband, angelic child, new body.

What if we could do this, the fantasy suggests? What if we could just will ourselves to accept the prescribed roles society gives us (damsel in distress, object of protection, vessel for childbearing) and make it okay through the power of our wills? And what if the men in our society were horrified by their power: physical, social, sexual, and curbed it themselves and we didn’t constantly have to be on our guard?

Some critics dismissed A Discovery of Witches when the ARCs and other promotion for the novel appeared, as more of the paranormal / urban fantasy / romance generic tropes: the special cipher a la Bella, helpless as can be but firming her feisty chin as her gorgeous vampire boyfriend indulges and protects her. Most of all the romantic male primary loves Bella because he can’t help himself — the smell of her special blood is just so enticing! His love object lacks any other qualities that tend to attract love, such as character and personality, curiosity, intelligence, education, knowledge of the world, interests or achievements, even a sense of humor. Bella is special because — other exceptional figures such as vampires and werewolves love her, and they love her because of how she smells. A Discovery’s romantic male lead is Matthew, a 1500 year old vampire of vast wealth, intellectual brilliance and military prowess. He adores how Diana smells, he protects her. All his family loves Diana. Not the least of his attractions, Matthew owns his own jet and helicopters — yes helicopters, plural. So, in the initial pages Ms. Harkness seems to have broken out the parts of the Twilightiad that are compelling wish fulfillment for the female adolescent reader.  Diana’s a witch who is special even among other witches, though in childhood, Diana chose to secede from her witch heritage, refusing even the minimum training in spells that all witches, however powerful or weak, are obligated to receive.

However, A Discovery of Witches isn’t what that description leads one to expect. Diana narrates in first person, providing only as much information about herself as we need, when we need it. Mostly she’s asking herself questions of history, of science, of families – all things outside herself, things that are bigger than she is, even though the author does make sure we know those around Diana regard her as special. Still, Diana’s specialness doesn’t overwhelm the narration since the author’s good judgment breaks up Diana’s voice with third person point of view of various other protagonists. There’s sly humor — every time Matthew picks up Diana, or thinks about how she smells, I swear Harkness is winking at Bella and Edward, and at us too. Whereas Bella wants to never grow up, Diana is living an adult’s life, though so far she’s been denying herself much of what she’s earned by her own efforts. Diana’s family and Matthew’s family bond through their mutual love of the two lovers. Merging families of creatures who are unlike and traditionally at odds is purposeful in terms the Great Mysteries we’re delving into. Diana’s specialness is because she’s a hardworking, disciplined scholar who delights in things scientific and historic, things beautiful, who is loyal, courageous, possesses integrity and her own sense of honor. That her smell happens to so appeal to Matthew is langniappe — he smells just as good to her. If you wish to get subtextual, you can say the way they smell to each other signifies that together they possesses the qualities they need for the great quest of the trilogy. They are equally matched lovers, who don’t waste their precious energies engaging in the contrivances of – “I hate you but I love you, O what will I /we do, separations and mis-communications.” That Diana and Matthew are matched agencies who are true lovers is essential to the plot of this novel, and will play an even greater role as the trilogy progresses. They are the Lovers of the Tarot and alchemy, whose conjucio could have a conceptio that might redeem the world. A Disovery of Witches is, among other things, a quest to discover the beginnings of all things in order to continue all things. One of the essential questions is, “Is immortality the same as never dying?” There are many ghosts in A Discovery, most of them Diana’s relatives. They speak to her, and she to them.  Are they persons then?

The four sentient species of A Discovery are called “creatures.” The creatures are divided among vampires, witches, daemons and humans. There is council called the Congregation that governs their dealings with each other, with places for three members each representing vampires, witches and daemons. As there are no human representatives seated with the Congregation there are no humans in A Discovery of Witches (at least in this first volume of the trilogy, other than spear carriers who, generally, are besottted with the individuals of the other creatures who are our protagonists and antagonists. This is the hierarchy of A Discovery’s world, a hierarchy like that of the world view that preceeded and remained in most places contemporaneous with alchemy’s groping toward the scientific method: God, angels, humans, animals. Or in terms of worldly power, the Pope and his Church, King and his warrior nobles, the merchants, finally serfs and peasants. In A Discovery, vampires are the aristocratic military rank of the creatures, witches the material intelligence, daemons the creative intelligence, and humans are the serfs. Humans are relegated to useful servants – or food — though the other three creature species conceal themselves from humans since humans have long outbred the other three divisions of creatures.

Eceptionalism is the potent point of much science fiction and fantasy. Whether YA or adult, the protagonist is part of that imaginary world’s 1%, or if not starting there, will end up in that bracket. Thus, if the science fiction field really is an American conceptio, i.e. U.S. invention, as is often claimed, this exceptionalism reflects our ingrained national self-regard. This can be troublesome when looked at closely. What else that can be disturbing within the context of novels like A Discovery, is that the exceptional achievements in history, the arts and sciences, all, or most, are the production of these supernatural creatures. Within A Discovery humans have nothing to do with even the ending WWII. Entertainments like A Discovery of Witches, or Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, in which significant events of good or evil of our own recorded history are attributed to supernatual agency seem increasingly a given. Humans are not responsible for what, in fact, we know we are responsible, whether the plays of Shakespeare or slavery.

Food for thought indeed, and A Discovery of Witches provides us a banquet of ideas to consider. For instance, there are the questions of time. What is the past? Where is it? Perhaps fairyland is the past, the dimension that we can enter, if we know the right things? Diana – and we — have a guide into these unknown historic eras, Matthew, who assures Diana, that in the past she will yearn with a passion she cannot now in present time even imagine — hot water. This has me impatient for the next volume, Shadow of Night, to see where these questions lead Harkness and her characters.

 

Terry Gilliam Christmas Card From 1968

December 21st, 2011

I adore this!

Probably all the more since I haven’t been able to get my own cards out yet this year.

Dang three syllabi by Friday afrernoon, plus that grant Monday.

We’re tired.  It’s been one hell of a year.  People we adore want us to come up to their place on Christmas Eve.  It would be so much fun, and there’s nobody else I’d like to be with better. We’ll do better staying home together, however, eating my kickass moussaka, watching Julie Taymor’s The Tempest and reading Sir Gawain aloud to each other.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=NL4D1PcgZd4

Happy Holidays you all!