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Mar. 4th, 2013

I intend to raze your patrimony..

No, Leia, I am your mother.

I’ve recently been thinking about the archetypal “hero’s journey” as it appears in fantasy settings a la Star Wars, and wondering how it would look with a female main character.

The same? Maybe. I’ve certainly read some that look similar to the hero's journey, but as Tamora Pierce’s Alanna does, they usually include the struggles of being female in a male-dominated world, and they have some key differences. Fantasy and mythic, even science fiction, women generally deal with a world of inequality, a world where a woman's heroic journey is complicated by patriarchy, or where the struggle must happen in a different social sphere, say within a household. Why? Its not that I'm against writing about patriarchy, but why must all the writing be about this? As this wonderful writer puts it,

"“‘hey! suppose gender equality evolved as the dragon invasion forced every fit adult into combat.’ […] It’s not that ‘it’s fantasy, reality need not apply’ but that it’s significant which aspects of reality are commonly broken and which are treated as indestructible.”

Many heroic journeys have a relationship between the son and his father. Could the same happen between the daughter and her mother? Would a daughter ever inherit her mother’s sword. Would a plot point ever be coming to terms with her mother’s identity. Could a female Darth Vader have said “No, Leia, I am your mother?”

Do those words sound strange, foreign, even funny? If so, why?

Because James Earl Jones’s voice and it would just be hilarious okay yes good reason to laugh but imagine another actor is it because it’s hard to imagine a society where a mother would have that much power? Would it have been as chilling? Would we have taken it as seriously? Would the violence between them be different, or would we have seen it differently?

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Dec. 17th, 2012

Irene in a boat

Is there an overarching theme to the Queen of Attolia?

You could talk about the Queen of Attolia going from disbelief (of Eugenides's smile at the beginning, which indicates his genuine admiration and love) to belief (of Eugenides's love at the end). The reader does something similar, although it may take re-reading to truly believe that he loves her.
Major question: How do you believe someone, when you know they frequently lie? this question is echoed in the way the narrative itself is in effect one big lie, a lie of perception, a lie of misdirection (making us believe Eugenides hates Attolia, when in fact he loves her). It's about how hiding feelings, and the extent to which reality (and those around us) is not what we are lead to perceive, the extent to which we don't perceive.

There's something in there about subverting Beauty and the Beast, too. Something about saving others through love, something about loving ones' enemies. The mask versus the truth.

Dec. 2nd, 2012

Irene in a boat


I just finished reading "Chime" by Franny Billingsley. 

It was extraordinary.

I read all day. I read all night.

I was not in control of this. Sometimes, I wanted to stop to eat. It was hard. I couldn't pull myself away.

I could relate to it so very well. I, too, have convinced myself I am bad. And had to re-stomp those pathways in my brain. I am doing it now, every day. It's hard.

It's an extaordinary book, wonderfully written, much better than anything I've read recently (and that includes Graceling, which I also liked). I don't have much to say about why it's so good, because my brain is still not working yet.

Does anyone else also love this book? Could you also relate? When did you start realizing the Stepmother was evil? I figured that out quite early on, but I didn't stop to think that Briony had killed her before the end. I blame the book for distracting me with its pretty, muddy, oozy words.

And is the Brownie (the apple-and-mint Brownie) also your favourite? I love him best.

Oct. 18th, 2011


The magical world of Harry Potter is real. And I'm not talking about the theme park.

We've been led to believe that the magic in children's books is just not real. And in most cases, this is true. But not in the case of Harry Potter.

Harry Potter magic is real.

No, really. But before you go check your mailbox for your Hogwarts letter once again, let me explain what I mean. We all know adulthood is the realm of reality, right? We even call leaving school for the adult job-market "entering the real world." Well, at the end of Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows, Harry is an adult. And he can still do magic. (God damn him, you may say, he's had a better magical education than me because of A GOD DAMN LETTER. Yes. But put that aside for now...).

Harry is an adult who can do magic.

This is radically different from the magic in most fantasy children's books. Once you hit puberty, the magic in those books stops being real. But Harry Potter magic doesn't do that.

See, in most fantasy-genre children's books, the characters inhabit a magical world that, by the end of the book, they have to give up. In these books, magic represents a state of childhood innocence, the inner but meaningful fantasy children inhabit when they play. This fantasy-world is where children find out who they are, learn how good and evil work, learn how the world works. But the fantasy-world is not the real world.

Narnia is a classic example. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy encounter good and evil in Narnia, they learn about themselves and about faith and truth --but when they reach a certain age they must leave Narnia for the real world in order to put into practice what they have learned. In His Dark Materials, Lyra loses the ability to read the Alethiometer when she loses her "childhood grace". In Peter Pan, Wendy must eventually leave Neverland and grow up and lose the ability to fly. In Five Children and It, the Psammiad --sand fairy and granter of wishes --must eventually depart. All magic stops being real.

But at the end of the final Harry Potter book, our heroes are still living in their magical world, as grown adults. Indeed, the last spell cast in the series is one of magical renewal -- when Harry repairs his own wand in preparation for a life of doing magic.

This is because, in Harry Potter, the magical world is not a fantasy place. It is a wonderful and terrible reality which looked like fantasy when you were young, but isn't.

JK Rowling is clever about this. She begins (in the first few books) in a full-on fairy-tale mode, making us think the series is going to be about that inner fantasy place again, and then she sneakily switches genres (or registers) as she goes along. The first few books are in a more or less larger-than-life register, complete with exaggeratedly horrible step-parents (see Cinderella and most Roald Dahl), a lovable giant (Roald Dahl again), a wise old wizard (Tolkein or T.H. White), a bat-like horror of a teacher (for Snape, see Mrs. Trunchbull), and an escape to a world of wonder and magic. Stepping into Diagon Alley seems like stepping into Narnia.

But it isn't.

It just looks like Narnia because that's how Harry sees it. After all, Harry is eleven. But as the series gets older, we start to see through the patina of wonder just as Harry does. The things in fairy-tales are larger than life because they have a flat and exaggerated quality to them, like hand-puppet shadows that loom and cower and tremble. But instead of turning on the light and showing us that the shadows weren't real, though they were cast by something that was, JK Rowling deepens the shadows, adding texture and highlights and dimensions until we realize what we're looking at isn't a shadow at all, but a real person in a real place. The wise old wizard is a flawed and human old man, the bat-like horror of a teacher is a lonely, embittered schoolboy who was unlucky at love, the evil step-parent is a petty result of sibling jealousy and cultural prejudice. The magic itself that seemed so extraordinary *is* wonderful, but just in the way ordinary life is wonderful: it enables you to turn on the lights, wash the dishes, get to work in the morning, and rid the garden of gnomes. And the magical world of wonder is a real institution, with all the lights and shades and flaws that entails: community, friendship, and culture as well as endemic racism, prejudice, and bureaucracy.

So JK Rowling's world of muggles versus magic does not follow Plato's ideas, at least not in the same way of most children's stories that concern themselves with two worlds. There is no division between a false reality and a real reality in JK Rowling's two worlds. Instead, they are all the same thing, and the patina of the fantastic is just in how you look at it.

The world of the Dursleys, like most things that appear to be horribly mundane, is not "dull reality", but "a state of ignorance". Harry at the Durslesy lives in a state of ignorance about his past, himself, his potential, and life in general. He's not living in the epitome of "the real world" --he's not able to. He's living in a cupboard, for God's sake. It's hard to experience life fully when you are living in a cupboard.

And when he finally gets a chance to experience life, of course the full extent of it IS richer and more full of wonder, friendship, and fun, than he could have imagined back in the Dursleys' cupboard, when having a good time meant not having to look at hundreds of pictures of someone else's cats. Life is also more full of horror, danger, and death than the dullness of the Dursleys' cupboard, too.

Reality is interesting, and frightening, and absurd. When Harry discovers magic, that is what he is discovering. Reality.

(So I really should go do something interesting and all that, but before I do, I think it's time to check the mailbox).

Aug. 25th, 2011


Lyra's reaction against Puritanism

At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra overhears her parents talking about Dust. Her father invites her mother to come with him, into the new world he has just opened, "to destroy Dust once and for all." Later on, we find Lord Asriel is in fact trying to protect Dust; he tells  Mrs. Coulter he lied to her earlier, because he thought a lie would win her over.

Question: this seems like a messy explanation for a line that, in retrospect, makes no sense. Did Philip Pullman not know what he was doing at the end of The Golden Compass? Was this a retroactive correction of a mistake?

In my opinion, it was no mistake. It does seem messy, though, and here's why: Asriel lied to Marisa at the end of TGC not because Philip Pullman didn't know what he was doing, but because Lyra had to have a moment where she thinks "WAIT, if these adults think Dust is bad, and they themselves do evil things, maybe Dust is good." That's a line of reasoning which underlies practically the whole trilogy, and Lyra needed to have that realization. So, Asriel pretends he's on the side of the church in order for Lyra to have something to react against.

So, it's a little messy, but it's for a good reason. And I mean, how would it be if we got to the end of the Golden Compass, and Asriel goes "Well, Marisa, it seems we're against Dust, and we've just both done many evil things against Dust, and the dear confused readers don't actually even know what the damn stuff is yet. And I've
just done something totally evil to my daughter's best friend, and all they know is it has something to do with this evil substance. But in fact my motivations are, well, a little more complicated. Let me explain exactly how I feel about this thing our dear readers are already in the dark about, and make the waters just a little more murky for them,
yes?" The Golden Compass is all about Lyra coming to the point where she realizes her parents are WRONG. She can make up her own mind independent of authority figures like her parents. If they had presented a multi-faceted, complex picture at the end of the book, it would have come out of nowhere and she would have had nothing to react against.

It's interesting that her parents' puritanism, against which her reaction is so important, is just skin deep. It's like a father who says "Don't have sex, that's sinful and bad" to his daughter, but who is really all for sex himself, in private. The adults' views are more complicated than the repressive front they maintain and force on their children, but

that doesn't mean the children's rebellion against it is any less valid and "good."

Aug. 10th, 2011


Why I am excited for The Hunger Games

I'm getting increasingly excited about this new movie of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I'm excited for one main reason:

These are books that, unlike most others, are extremely filmable. In fact, I think they could make better films than books.

Who knows if they will. But they might. And that will be interesting, because I think the flaws of the books are things that will actually not be flaws in cinema. Of course I could be wrong, but I'm excited to see if I'm right. Suzanne Collins started out as a children's TV writer, and I suspect it shows. Oh, and she's writing the script.

I'm not a typical Hunger Games fan (I'm not even much of a Hunger Games fan, actually) because Mockingjay was my favourite of the series. It's my favourite for the simple reason that it made me cry, something I never in my cynical, this-series-is-badly-written-attitude, expected. There was a scene with Buttercup the cat. That might sound sweet, but it's not. Collins got something deeply right in that scene. And it's not simply that Sad Things Had Happened, it's  something about the chemistry of the scene itself, what was happening between the girl and the cat. It really moved me. I actually sat there and sobbed.

Unfortunately, I read the kindle version of the book on my laptop screen, and I found I didn’t retain it as well as I would had I had the physical book (or perhaps the less shiny screen of a proper e-reader). So I don’t remember all the ins and outs of the plot, but I do remember thinking the book had one big flaw in its… technical structure, because it cut short its own climax by having its point of view character pass out at a critical moment (AGAIN!), wake up weeks later in safety, and then stay out of the external action for most of the rest of the book.

Here's my theory about Suzanne Collins again: Mockingjay is a book that’s written like an action movie, but which is really about character development and introspection by its end. I never knew which kind of book it was going to be, so I got all geared up for the plot-action, and then felt the wind go out of my sails when I was asked to suddenly (!) slow down and deal with Katniss's inner trauma, and find that the entire conflict had changed. Care about what happens in this war, do you?! Well, now you've got to care about trauma and depression. Now!

Collins kept throwing me for a loop with what the book would be about!

I think part of the problem for me (and this was a problem in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, too) was that Collins has issues with pacing. She does in my reading, anyway. My pet theory is it has to do with her past as a TV writer. The books alternate between moving through time in leaps and bounds, and stopping for extreme close-ups. That’s exactly how things work on-screen. It doesn't always work so well on-page.

So, all in all, I’m extremely excited to see how the Hunger Games translates into film. In film you can show a whole Victory Tour in a montage, and the audience won’t feel cheated. I felt cheated when in Catching Fire certain events I thought would be the focus of the book were well out of the way within the first few chapters!  I also felt cheated when I spent whole chapters towards the end of Catching Fire in confusion and ignorance with Katniss, when a far more interesting drama was being enacted in secret all around her. Confusion is an ok movie climax, if it's intense and epic enough, because the screen still knows how to display its images even if they're shaky and chaotic (see any action movie shaky-camera chaos); but books rely on our mind knowing what to imagine, so they're more tense if we know what's happening. And what the stakes truly are, so we can care. If only Collins had let Katniss be in on at least part of the secret plans in that clock arena, I remember thinking! That would have been fascinating. But no, Katniss is to stay ignorant. Well, maybe that’s part of The Point of Catching Fire. Maybe she's an Ignorant Child in a War. But I wished Katniss could have been more empowered by her author at that point. And having your narrator pass out or be concussed just when things get interesting, and then cut to safety –it didn’t work for me so well.

But it might work in a movie! Who knows.

And even if it doesn't, I forgive absolutely everything for the Buttercup scene! ;)

Jul. 21st, 2011


Wisdom from Evannah (Luna!)

Here is something so freeing and beautiful, written by Evannah Lynch (who plays Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter, and who struggled with an eating disorder before she got cast. She credits JK Rowling with helping her over it).
Her words are truly liberating:

"On the other hand, I don’t believe in sweeping these insecurities under the carpet. Doing that is almost as destructive as obsessing over these insecurities. Perhaps many of you bookish individuals who come from bookish families have been brought up to believe that beautifying oneself is a vain, self-seeking, and wasteful practise, as it does nothing to enhance one’s knowledge of the world. My mother grew up in a very loving, intelligent family, but she was not brought up to believe she was beautiful. Sometimes I ask her about her youth and the things she did, and so often her reply is “I didn’t have the confidence for that.” I’m trying to tell you that ignoring them is not the right way to deal with insecurities! Ignoring pain or problems doesn’t make them go away. The fact is you have a body and, as it encases the rest of you, it’s important that you are happy with it."

I definitely identify with this. Belittling insecurities doesn't make them disappear, and it's easy to do it without even realizing that's what you're doing. It's braver to challenge them.

Read her whole great essay here: http://thehpalliance.org/2011/01/why-the-body-bind-is-my-nightmare/I also liked her quote of Jason Isaacs, here, that "perfectionism is the enemy of creativity," something I always need to keep in mind and constantly forget. Perfectionism is my paralysis. That quote is from this leaky-con interview: http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment_movies_blog/2011/07/potters-evanna-lynch-and-scarlett-byrne-at-leakycon.html

Such truth!

Jul. 8th, 2011


About Lyra's role in The Subtle Knife

Recently, someone posted that it is a common criticism of his Dark Materials that after Lyra meets Will, she let's him take over as the hero and becomes "the chick", only occasionally stepping in to provide lies (something that could be seen as a more "feminine wiles" kind of role).
I do think it could be said that, in a subtle way, in the amber spyglass Lyra and Will take on respectively feminine and masculine characteristics as they get more mature. But i'm not convinced it's done in a problematic way. That's a slightly different issue from the one raised above, however, which is about their roles after they meet in The Subtle Knife.
Lyra turns into "the chick"? I don't see it that way, because of this: while the Golden Compass is Lyra's story, I'd argue that The Subtle Knife is Will's. Lyra is still a very important part of it, but I think it can be considered Will's story (I could name a bunch of things to back this up, but let's just stick to the fact that it started with him in his world, they're looking for his father, and the subtle knife, after which the book is named, is now his.) And if it is Will's story, it will be more powerful if his decisions are able to shape it at least some of the time. Just like Lyra's did The Golden Compass.

Lyra helps Will in his quest and not vice versa, but I don't think this decision is based on gender roles, but on storytelling relating to whose story this is, as well as on the logical way to further develop her character. Because putting her in the situation of needing to help and think about someone else's well-being is a brilliant thing to ask of her! It's a real stretch for Lyra, who has always operated alone or with underlings, always as a leader, never as an equal to someone her own age.

So it doesn't happen to the detriment of her character; quite the opposite. And I think that's the main difference. Female characters in the role of "the chick" are by definition tokenized; they don't carry the weight and complexity (and hence ability to shape the plot) of being fully-realized and competent, active characters like their male counterparts. But Lyra's development as a person is just as emphasized here as it was in the Golden Compass, and I don't get the impression the author is placing any less importance on her as a person just because some of the events are more seminal to Will's story than hers.

It can be easy to mix up the idea of "having an empowered, weighty character" with "having a character who physically fights and wins". Especially because so many people have subverted the traditional weaknesses of women characters by having them take on fierce, physical fighting roles. This in turn makes us hyper aware of any female characters who *aren't* taking on physical fighting roles, and it's led to a whole new problematic binary in which "empowered" means "able to kick butt like Lara Croft" not the more subtle "empowered by the author to be fully realized people who shape a story in a miriad of ways and are allowed to change and encounter situations in which their character development is crucial to the story. etc."

Oct. 13th, 2010




Aug. 27th, 2010


Fun links!

I just stumbled onto this: Patricia C. Wrede (Dealing with Dragons and lots of other books....) has a great blog.  She writes about writing and she's very practical... And because I like reading about writing by people who are very practical, I don't want to forget to go back!


On a less useful note, if you're looking to be cheered up, 'Mark Reads Harry Potter' is a lot of fun, especially the first few posts.  (He did some extremely funny reviews of Twilight, too, but those made me laugh in a negative way, and these just make me gleeful).



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