Friday, 21 October 2011

"The Tortoise and the Hare," Elizabeth Jenkins

I picked this up during a visit to Manchester, which involved a trip to a Waterstones which was full of pretty Virago press editions sitting right there where I could get my dirty paws all over them. I picked the one which seemed to have the most interesting plot--a love triangle--and immediately took it off to read.

The passive, pretty, and sweet-hearted Imogen and the plain, older but very effective Blanche fight for the affections of Distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham--a battle that should be easy for Imogen to win, as she's Evelyn's wife, but it doesn't turn out that way. The story is told almost entirely from Imogen's point of view, and I found it impossible not to like her as a character, despite her comparative uselessness (it helps that Blanche is useful in ways that involve shooting woodland creatures and hectoring knocked-up schoolgirls).

Lots of reviewers compare this to Jane Austen, and it does involve rich-ish English people and marriage, but plot-wise that's where the similarities end. Jenkins is much more sympathetic to both Imogen and Blanche than Austen would have been--Austen would have given Blanche both barrels, I think, and couldn't help but have played up Imogen's blind foolishness.

Possibly the only story I have read in which the Cinderella story serves as a B-plot, and begins with the protagonist carelessly making out with the Prince Charming figure.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Orson Scott Card, "Hamlet's Ghost"

I was suckered into reading "Hamlet's Ghost" by the controversy surrounding it, which started when Rain Taxi Review got its hands on a special edition of the story, published by Subterranean Press, and panned it completely for being a homophobic mess. Other writers spoke out and eventually the whole thing made it into the papers.

I love trainwrecks and was curious to see how bad "Hamlet's Ghost" would be, and it turns out that the original story is available in a Kindle collection (don't worry about buying it, Tanith Lee's in there, too). For those who don't know (spoilers ahead): The big twist in "Hamlet's Ghost" is that Hamlet's uncle didn't kill Hamlet's father, it was really Horatio, who was fed up with King Hamlet raping him and decided to off the old man. Hamlet realizes his mistake, but it's too late and Hamlet dies and goes to rape hell. The end.

It's difficult to adapt Shakespeare, and Card isn't up to the task--the original Rain Taxi review links to an adaptation Card did of "Taming of the Shrew" which is even more ridiculous in some ways than "Hamlet's Ghost" (let's modernize the text but leave the iambic pentameter in! Genius!) At least the "Shrew" adaptation keeps some of the text, though. "Hamlet's Ghost" is pure prose, and it all goes down like a lead weight through Jello.

In this version of Hamlet, Hamlet is so self-absorbed that he never notices that his dad is raping all of his friends. This despite his friends constantly hanging out one-on-one with his dad, after which they return in floods of tears. Card's Hamlet makes Shakespeare's Hamlet look like a model of consideration for others--at one point Card's Hamlet flies into a snit because he's told that his before his father died the old man liked to garden, which meant that his father was edging or grafting roses instead of hanging out with him. Hamlet is able to slip out of his own thick head long enough to notice that King Hamlet is not a particularly good ruler, but he still spends the entire book wailing over his daddy not paying enough attention to him. This is supposed to make the ending ironic, because OMG HIS DAD WAS A PEDO and so on.

Every character in this novella is a self-absorbed idiot, with the possible exception of Ophelia, whose decision to kill herself seems perfectly sane in this context. Hamlet's mother is willing to threaten King Hamlet with a knife when she sees him feeling up his offspring (ugh), but she doesn't notice that her husband is using her son's training as an excuse to gather up a bunch of "beautiful" young lads who are just her son's age, or more likely she doesn't care. None of these boys tell their fathers or mothers, or the fathers and mothers don't care, either. It's not as surprising that they don't tell Hamlet about the abuse, because Hamlet is thick and also it would spoil the "surprise ending," but none of them seem particularly angry at Hamlet, even when he's constantly driveling on about his father. You'd think one of them would snap and throttle the moron.

This all leads up to a hilarious ending where everybody dies screaming about man-boy love, and Hamlet slips off to hell. It turns out that his ghost dad totally messed with Hamlet's head so they could have sex in hell forever! This is supposed to be creepy, but since King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet are the awfulest people in a sea of lazy jerks, they really do deserve each other--and it's not like what they're doing is really wrong, because they're already in hell, right? At least Hamlet will be forced to find something to do other than whine about his father not loving him enough. Maybe that is the true punishment.

It's easy not to take "Hamlet's Ghost" seriously, because it's just so terrible. But it's hard to read it only as a direct denunciation of homosexuality--not because Card isn't a homophobe (he is) but because the story doesn't seem connected to any sort of realistic adult sexuality. In the world of "Hamlet's Ghost," the only real sexual option seems to be homosexual pedophilia. Every other sexual predilection is either a only vague possibility or explained away as a nasty side effect of homosexual pedophilia. Yes, post-gay therapy and other such nonsense tend to "explain" homosexuality as the result of molestation, but usually they at least attempt to portray heterosexuality as normal or at least common. In "Hamlet's Ghost," there are no heterosexual adults. Everyone's sexuality is either very, very latent or fixed by an incident that took place well before puberty.

It's too odd, and I've been reading more Card to see what textual path eventually led up to the whole Vortex to NAMBLA Hell ending. More on that later.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Not About a Book

This isn't about a book, but I have to comment on this Tiger Beatdown post on a study of "Gender and Digital Politics," published by the Hansard Society, no less! Apparently most political blogs are run/commented upon by men, shock of shockers. I must opine because I have seen this nonsense in action.

OK, here's my breakdown:

Politics is a nerd activity--the kind of nerd activity that attracts mostly men. Women who enter this realm are going to be treated as sex objects, especially by older men who don't get that women are not just support systems for titties. This is cool if you go into the nerd community because you want to prove the law of scarcity and be treated like a rare sex pantheress by socially awkward dudes, but not cool if you actually want to play, say, Magic the Gathering or have your opinion on political issues respected. (For further research, see this Babycakes video about being aggressive. B-E AGGRESSIVE. Man, I love Babycakes.)

Most of the time it's not actually unsafe to speak up in the "boys' treehouse," online or in real life, and you're probably not going to be straight-out called "cunt" or "bitch," but you'll definitely be treated like one, which is probably worse. I doubt this has to do much with an aggressive, insulting atmosphere (BABYCAKES!) per se, like Tiger Beatdown claims--women can be just as tenacious in defending their opinions as men are, especially in an online environment--but rather a kind of institutional misogyny. Women can adopt whatever attitude they want, they are still women and therefore suspect.

For posters/writers on political blogs who have vaginas and are willing to identify themselves as possessing such organs, avoiding being ignored or treated like a freakshow usually means giving into what I'm going to call the "Elly Hart" tendency (in honor of this post), in which the writer continuously has to set herself apart from the rest of those nasty, weak-willed women. This is often because the common consensus of the group is that women are nasty and weak-willed, silly at best and fundamentally dishonest at worst. If you're going into this group as a known female, you're going to be facing a group who think that you, because you are female, are--for example--prone to making false rape accusations all the time. (I lurked and occasionally postedon a blog where this went on all the damn time. Whenever any sort of sexual assault issue came up, it automatically turned into rants about how the ladies make this sort of shit up and how damn awful that is.)

Now political blogging is a spare-time activity--it's not like God comes down from the heavens and commands people to spend their time wonking out on the Internet. Very few people are drawn to these blogs in the first place--now how many of these people are going to be female? And how many of those are going to put in the time and effort to establish themselves in a hostile environment? And how many of those people are going to swim against the tide of popular opinion (well, popular opinion in the context of an anorak-y blog) to try to establish a view on any woman's issue that doesn't coincide with the negative opinion of the majority of posters?

And that's why you don't get a lot of women commenting on political blogs.

(Addendum: The most popular blogs in the UK definitely lean right and have this sort of anti-Zardoz "penis good!" thing going on--very heavy on the men's rights and so on. Not the natural environment for the centrist-to-left-leaning woman, or even a right-leaning woman who is not interested in talking about imaginary crazy harpy women tearing off imaginary balls.)

(Further addendum: I'm tempted to comment on my own post with "CUNT" just to get it out of the way.)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

"Wildfire," Sarah Micklem

This is going to be a long slog, but I have to work out my feelings about this book. I picked up "Firethorn," the first book in Micklem's series, by chance--it was a free copy. And I loved the hell out of that book! It had everything--a vision quest! A believable pseudo-medieval universe! A religion that didn't merely involve people saying "Gods!" instead of "God!"

A sequel was promised. I was stoked for years for this book, people. I snapped it up right away. And I was disappointed. Everything in "Wildfire" was amped up to epic fantasy levels. What I had loved about "Firethorn" was the smallness of it--there might be kings and queens off fighting somewhere, but what was most important were the conflicts in the heroine's life. Now I had to care about royalty and intrigues and magic again. Plus, there were all the epic fantasy cliches I had grown to hate so well.

I'm concentrating on the cliches that apply to female characters, because in the first book Firethorn was so kickass that I have to mourn what I wanted her to become. I could go on and discuss all the other things that irk me about epic fantasy, but then this post would probably span across ALL SPACE AND TIME (no, things are really not that bad between epic fantasy and me. Really).

First off:

1. The Magical Hooker

Why, oh why, does the magical hooker character exist? I'm not discussing prostitute characters in general, I'm talking about women who are Top Hooker--beautiful, cultured, the favorite of every man (and quite possibly the target of every woman). Think Inara in "Firefly"--the dominant feature of the character is that she's very good at pleasing other people.

In "Wildfire," Firethorn is sent to a courtesan's house to learn the art of being a "whore-celebrant." However, Firethorn is written as stubborn and a bit introverted. In the first book, she reacts to a traumatic experience by running off into the woods, and she finds camp life hard to adjust to because of the lack of privacy. Firethorn does work as a healer, which is a "people" sort of job, but it's obvious that she's not just a passive magic-worker--she prescribes treatments to her patients, and if they're not obeying her good advice, she'll lay down the law. A job that involves being pleasant to a bunch of strangers, who have a total command over her body and time, would tire her out pretty quickly.

Plus, by the time she arrives at Courtesan Boot Camp, she's not in the best physical shape--she has cataracts in one eye, a bunch of scars on her back, and partial paralysis on one side of her face. This wouldn't be so much of a problem for the time period except that the society she's in at the time puts an emphasis on physical perfection.

Micklem overcomes these handicaps by suddenly gifting Firethorn with the power to learn a new language in a few months, to the point where she can spout off her own original poetry--all because she knew a few words of this language as a very young child. Like I said, magical hooker.

I liked Firethorn better when she was just a horny witch doctor. There aren't enough female characters who both like sex and know about things other than sex (unless they are ridiculously evil sexy sorceresses).

2. The Love Triangle

Oh, love triangle, plot device which pops up everywhere. I understand why: it's a very useful device in a genre which demands at least a trilogy out of every storyline. The author can work in one lover per book, then pit them against each other in the third and final volume. Unfortunately, it only works when the protagonist has two decent prospects to choose between.

The main plot of the first book kicks off when Firethorn falls in love with a knight and follows him off to war as his camp follower or "sheath." Her warrior, Galan, is part of the class of men who conquered her country, and she's part of the native or "mud" class, so she's socially inferior and he does treat her like it. At one point he even whips her for some minor transgression, and she takes it in her stride. At the end of "Firethorn," when Galan offers Firethorn a cottage and a small piece of land, he's being amazingly generous--foolhardy, according to the men in his social class. Part of the dramatic tension of "Firethorn" comes from watching Firethorn try to protect herself as best she can, while keeping Galan's image of her as a sweet, innocent mudwoman intact.

However, even if Galan is a problematic love interest, it's easy to see why Firethorn wants to be with him. He's sexy, daring, and important in his clan, which reflects well on Firethorn and also means that she doesn't have to worry about being forced to sleep with her man's masters. As a camp follower, Firethorn can also follow him to places she wouldn't have access to on her own, with some level of protection. It's a good arrangement all round, as good goes by the standards of Firethorn's universe.

Prince Whatever-His-Face pushes Firethorn through the mountains while she's manacled and freezing, then spends the rest of his time sulking over his lost wife and kingdom. He intends to get his kingdom back through some hare-brained scheme that involves training Firethorn as a courtesan, then ritually tattooing her and sending her to his usurping brother as a "princess" to marry, after which Firethorn will spy on the brother, or kill him, or something or other. His other main characteristic is that he's celibate. That's it. It's like watching a romantic epic where the hero transforms from Viggo Mortenson into David Miliband.

This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the prince was just a plot device to send Firethorn off on another adventure, but Firethorn falls deeply in love with the prince, mainly because he treats her badly and won't sleep with her. At this point, she is no longer a rather defenseless camp follower but a successful courtesan, so the "I love you despite your treatment of me" storyline seems sour instead of natural to the situation. Firethorn can have her pick of rich, successful men, so why fall in love with the dullest of the bunch?

3. Pregnancy

Fantasy authors writing from a female character's perspective usually have to find a way for their heroines to have tons of sex and never, never, never have babies. This phenomenon is usually explained by some form of contraceptive, magical or otherwise (unless you're George R.R. Martin and don't understand the differences between contraceptives and abortifacients, but THAT is a topic for another time). Firethorn takes some berries to keep herself from getting pregnant when she first meets Galan, which I was willing to believe as a possibility.

At the end of the first book, Firethorn runs out of the berries. She mentions that her periods have stopped and that she might be pregnant. (She's mentioned wanting Galan's child before.) I wanted to see this happen. Would she have to end the pregnancy? If she didn't, how would she manage childbirth in camp, and how would she deal with a baby? How would she and Galan function as a family, or would they split up? Usually childbirth and kids mark the end of a female character's story arc, and it would be great to follow a character dealing with children while existing in her own right. I wanted my barefoot and pregnant protagonist, dammit!

And of course, it didn't happen. It turns out that Firethorn is not pregnant--she's temporarily barren because of some sex voodoo that some mean priestesses laid down on her. This is discovered (and reversed!) while she's working as a courtesan. (Why you'd want to reverse the process while you're working as a courtesan is beyond me, but it happens.)

Sexual magic is generally a boondoggle in the first book--Firethorn's friend and fellow camp follower, Mai, sells love potions and brings Firethorn into her business. At one point, Firethorn, jealous of Galan and frightened by his interest in a noble lady, begs Mai for a charm to keep Galan's attention, and Mai gives in. When the charm "works," Mai tells Firethorn that the charm didn't have any power--the point was to reassure Firethorn and keep her belief alive, and hopefully that would do the rest.

In the second book, sex magic is real. Maybe not the stuff that Mai does, but ladies who are classier than Mai can really do magic. Oh, there's a knot in Firethorn's uterus that was put there by sex priestesses? All right, then.

Authors--if you have to bend the rules of your own universe to preserve your protagonist's infertility, you might want to come up with another explanation.

Oh, goodness, that was insanely long.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

"The Help," Kathryn Stockett

Here comes "The Help"! A coworker read it, and it was recommended on various Twitter feeds (more on that later), so I decided to pick it up. The plot--for those who haven't seen the commercials for the movie--a Southern white girl writes down the stories of black maids for a book back in the early 1960s, and all sorts of drama ensue.

Generally, the book and the film both got a good reception, although there has been some dissent over the historical inaccuracies (Black Panthers in the early 1960s?), the use of dialect, and the depiction of race relations during the civil rights era, which is definitely, er, whitewashed (hur hur).

That was my main problem with the book--I really don't know much about 1960s Mississippi, but I know enough to tell that the world of "The Help" is a much gentler world than the reality. People get away with shit (literally) that they wouldn't be able to do in Real Life without coming in for the risk of some severe physical harm.

But if the book was going to be unrealistic, couldn't it have been just totally unrealistic? Take the ending: Skeeter, the white girl who wrote the book, gets a dream job in New York far away from her straitlaced life with her family on a Mississippi cotton farm. She'll be financially independent, have a much wider range of romantic prospects, and be able to make friends who aren't completely disgusting puckered-up assholes. Meanwhile, Aibileen, the "main" black maid, who didn't have a family to begin with (I think her son was run over by a lumber truck, just like Meg Ryan in "City of Angels," but I might be making that up), is stuck wandering around the city, unemployed. Seeing as there isn't much for black women to do in the universe of "The Help" other than deal with white people--all the black men are dead or abusive, and apparently Medgar Evans did 99 percent of the civil rights work--presumably poor Aibileen just hangs out at church, growing poorer and poorer until she keels over one day and dies. Rotten!

Aibileen should have kidnapped the ugly white baby she was taking care of and run off to join the Black Panthers, who in this version are all rich and live in some sort of offshore enclave that looks like Martinique. I'm not sure where it goes from there, but it definitely seems more fair than leaving the woman to wander around without a job.

I think I'm just bitter that there are no magical Negroes left to help me achieve my dreams. If only black people still couldn't vote, then I could be slightly nicer to them than other, horribly nasty white people, and then they would get me, I don't know, a trip to Paris and just be happy that I remembered to send a postcard. Tragically black people are not the same as fairytale elves.

If you want to read a well-thought-out piece on all the many, many issues that "The Help" has, read this great essay by Roxane Gay Bio over at The Rumpus.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

"Let the Right One In," John Ajvide Lindqvist

I loved "Let the Right One In"--it's a Swedish movie about vampires and the title is also the title of a Smiths song, joy!--so I decided to try the book, too.

I thought I was going to be getting a story about a young bullied boy and his love for a vampire--which is the focus of the film--but I also got the story of a PEDOPHILE WHO TURNS INTO A ZOMBIE WITH A PERMANENT ERECTION. Yeah, the book is much more horror-centric, with blood and skin and poop flying everywhere, and cops chasing down serial killers. There's a scene where a vampire is attacked by cats (they sense EVIL, apparently), but it's not only a mass cat attack, the cats are all gross and genetically deformed and full of dead kittens, and yeah, it's a tribute to Lindqvist's writing that I felt nauseated instead of just cracking the fuck up. Swedish people are very good at writing about horrible, over-the-top things happening while avoiding unintentional humor or really, any humor at all (I base this generalization entirely on this book and managing to get through the first two "Girl With a Dragon Whatever" books).

The romantic in me enjoys the whole "twisted love" angle more than the "zombie rape" angle, so I'd much rather re-watch the movie than re-read the book. Then again, Lindqvist is very good at evoking the kind of shitty suburban lifestyle that makes fighting a zombie pedo-rapist sound like a cool thing to do with your day.

Monday, 26 April 2010

An Apology and a Fresh Start

I know I made up a new purpose for this blog, then made a whole fuss over it, then... stopped. Then hid for a year in shame (and full-time employment).

You know what? Bad books are just, well, bad. Unlike a bad movie, you can't easily share the real-time experience with your friends. So I'm going back to just detailing what I read. Sorry, kids.