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These are a few of my favorite words, Part XVIII

Thursday September 22, 2011 @ 04:31 PM (UTC)

Deuxième Edition Française!

In rewatching Amélie recently, one of my two favorite films of all time, I was struck afresh by the word ‘accabler’. It’s one, like our old friend bouleverser, that I reach for in English conversation and whose lack stymies me utterly.

It means ‘weighed down’ or ‘borne down’, but it’s often used figuratively: in Amélie, the heroine imagines Paris “accablé de chagrin” (crushed by woe) at her funeral. The same Greek root, taken as spoils of war by the Romans, gives rise to the French word ‘câble’ (for once, exactly what you think it is, English speaker). I always imagine the burdens not just weighing someone down, but as impossible to escape — connected to them with chains, like the tail of Marley’s ghost. The closest I’ve come in English is ‘encumbered’. Not just crushed but hampered and bound. How many things are figuratively fixed to us in just such a way!

Cuckoo bumblebees

Friday August 26, 2011 @ 02:38 PM (UTC)

Awesome zoology discovery* of the day: the cuckoo bumblebee!

They are a specialized lineage which has lost social behavior, and lost the ability to collect pollen, and are instead cleptoparasitic in the colonies of other bumblebees. Before finding and invading a host colony, a Psithyrus female (there is no caste system in these species) will feed directly from flowers. Once she has infiltrated a host colony, the Psithyrus female will kill or subdue the queen of that colony and forcibly (using pheromones and/or physical attacks) “enslave” the workers of that colony to feed her and her developing young.

Okay, it’s also sort of sad, because bumblebees are adorable. (Just say it to yourself and try not to smile: ‘bumble’.) But it’s also weird and wonderful and unexpected. I love this stuff.

*For the limited sense of ‘discovery’ that means ‘I didn’t know this until I read it on the internet, but the scientific community has known it for more or less ever.’

Too cozy for comfort

Monday August 22, 2011 @ 02:11 PM (UTC)

I’m listening to a cozy mystery on audiobook. You know the sort of thing I mean: no gore, no guns. Just a puzzle and a well-behaved British sleuth working it out. I wasn’t too many chapters in before I thought, “this may just be too cozy for me.” At first, I thought it was a certain tendency of the author to include too many non-telling details: she turned right on Such Street and walked north to Another Street before proceeding west on Yet Another…she folded her newspaper under her right arm. But as I closed in on the three-quarter mark in this book, I realized that I had yet to meet an unpleasant character.

There’s conflict: World War I and its aftermath, the struggles of a character transcending her social class…I’m not a huge conflict addict myself, I can make do. But when I realize that I’m reading a book with the breakdown of social class as a theme where no character shows any attachment to the old ways, and the high-class characters show no evidence of reluctance to change, vested interest in a system that privileges them, or snootiness toward a ‘social climber’…I stop believing.

I harp a lot on the Vivid Fictive Dream described by John Gardner in Art of Fiction, so maybe you’re sick of it. But this sort of thing — a world with no jerks, no snobs, no self-absorbed idiots making trouble for characters — breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief. We’re used to accepting, even if we feel a few steps removed from them, flawless protagonists (perhaps especially in mysteries) but flawless supporting cast? Flawless extras? An entire Europe, hell, an entire World War with no human flaws? It’s cloying, and it’s unbelievable. As Agent Smith says, “The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”

I love escapist literature. I have comfort books where the hero saves the day and all evil is defeated. These are not particularly realistic things, but a good author can make me believe in them — and one of the ways you convince me to believe in your happily ever after, in spite of everything I know about human nature and the capacity things have to fall apart, is not to lie to me unnecessarily on the way. Gardner tells us that the novel “imitates the world in all its complexity”. That means jerks and petty tyrants, even if you’re not telling a story that needs epic tyrants or sociopaths. The thing about readers is we want you to lie to us, but we want you to tell us a lie we can believe.

On beauty and bridges

Thursday August 11, 2011 @ 09:35 AM (UTC)
Marquam Bridge (1966)
Marquam Bridge, photograph by Dave Feucht

When I was young, I remember reading some opinion piece or quote in the Oregonian about the Marquam Bridge: how ugly it was, what an eyesore, a concrete monstrosity. I turned to my mom and asked which bridge that was. She patiently managed to explain it to me, despite the utter ignorance of which freeway was which that I cultivated in those pre-driving days.

She had extra difficulty in explaining because I simply didn’t believe it was ugly. Yes, it’s notorious for ugliness, I now know. Just in choosing a photo of it on Flickr to illustrate this post I have come across several comments on that score. But I didn’t agree, and I still don’t.

Here’s what the Marquam is to me: once you merge onto the top deck, there’s a curve and a bank and all at once the horizon opens up around you. The city’s on your left with a progression of pretty bridges, but on a good day you don’t care at all because on your right is Mount Hood, and ahead is Mount St. Helens, your friendly local volcanoes fresh in white or burned out in grays and blacks on a blue canvas. On a clear day, it takes your breath away. That is a beautiful experience of a bridge.

I thought of that admittedly odd perspective recently when I was listening to Medicus, a historical mystery set in Roman Britain. A British viewpoint character is being asked her name in Latin — quid nomen tibi est? — and thinks about how ugly Latin is. Again, I was shocked. Latin, ugly?

Well, yes, I suppose it might be. I have only one year’s formal study of Latin, in addition to some childhood lessons from my Latin teacher grandma and years of singing liturgical Latin. I understand from Latin 101/102 that the way we pronounced Latin in choir was grossly unlikely to be how Romans pronounced it. The hopefully accurate rendering robs it of some of its dignity: kikero, not sisero; weni, widi, wiki. It’s full of hard noises, abrupt sounds. I suppose I can understand that to that imaginary Briton, it might be ugly. Unlike some of its Romance offspring, you can’t imagine it being called ‘flowing’ and ‘musical’.

But to me, even with my imperfect understanding, its a beautiful language. It communicates so effectively, so efficiently: the endings tell you precisely what the word is doing in the sentence, so that you can move the words about for aesthetic or rhetorical effect and lose no meaning. It has a set of assumptions that clip out unnecessary words. It allows for clarity and nuance. It’s a beautiful machine of a language, even all these years later. It is elegant. It is awesome.

Or, you know, it’s just a concrete double-decker that gets you from one place to another.

I suppose I think beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder — it’s in where she stands.

Art Form

Sunday August 07, 2011 @ 08:27 PM (UTC)

I was looking through the photographs the Metropolitan Museum of Art put online of their exhibit of Alexander McQueen fashion, “Savage Beauty” (hat tip Kate Elliott).

I’ve been an admirer of some of McQueen’s designs for a long time. They’re audacious and challenging. They often combine an element of the familiar with a leap into the wildly alien. I’m not hugely well-grounded in haute couture, and of course I can hardly fail to have problems with the fashion industry, but McQueen’s creations are arresting. On the Met’s blog, the photographs of objects from the wildly popular exhibit are accompanied by quotes from experts and from McQueen himself.

“My designing is done mainly during fittings. I change the cut.”

“I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them.”

These quotes really struck me, because something I’d thought as I looked at the photographs was that you can’t easily imagine a fashion drawing of these pieces. You often see a fashion drawing which is the purest expression of a concept, and then the realized item, which is just a little descended, a little off. These creations of McQueen’s, love them or hate them, are the real object, the thing itself.

You’d be hard pressed to express the essence of this mossy dress as a drawing, or communicate with a sketch the complexity that defines this dress designed from its fabric. And I think part of the power of these things, whether or not you like them as clothing, is that they were made with deep knowledge.

Part of any artist’s craft is having something to say, but another part of it is deep knowledge, passion and application, immersion. Here was someone who knew the shape of his medium intimately, and that mastery shows in the product: we should all aspire to that, as artists, even if we shy away from other aspects of McQueen’s legacy.

I was moved once by a craft talk by one of the poetry profs at my grad school, where she talked about memorizing poetry to learn rhythm. When I sum up that talk, the wisdom she conveyed, I think of it as ‘eat poetry so that your body is made of it’. You are what you eat, right? Eat words, eat art, eat poetry and prose — think about it, be aware of it, be a mindful mouth — and you can have that knowledge and love in every sinew. You’ll still be you, just made of your art. That’s what I aspire to: to be a story elemental with bones made of words.

What are you taking in that you want to keep? Out of what are you making yourself?

Photographs ©Sølve Sundsbø from the Met blog


Wednesday July 20, 2011 @ 04:28 PM (UTC)

My mother, I told a fellow author once, is the kind of reader you want. One time I recommended The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss to my mom — actually, I may have bought it for her as a present. Either way, she loved it. She bought several more hardback copies to give as birthday presents, and I am pretty sure once the trade paperback was out, she bought two extras to lend out to friends. I stress the two because buying one extra copy of a book she owns and loves is fairly ordinary for my mom. She sticks her return address labels on the extra copies and presses them into the hands of the friends and quilters with which her life abounds.

One library copy of your book, I’ve been told, translates to some number of readers — and those readers may in turn recommend your book, buy their own copy, or buy it as a gift. My mom, I’m convinced, is even better than a library, if she loves your book. In the case of Hearts of Horses, she probably bought at least five copies herself, and spurred some unknown quantity of other purchases.

I used to think of this specifically as something my mother does, until the other day I was talking books with my friend Dan. I know Dan reads ravenously and always has, and he is free with his recommendations. But as he pressed a historical murder mystery into my hands, I protested, “My to-read list is over 250 books long! If you give this to me, you’re not likely to get it back.”

“Oh, I don’t count on getting any book back that I lend out,” he said. “If I was worried, I’d buy a second copy to lend.” Suddenly, I realized: Dan is constantly extolling his favorite books. He lends books like you’re doing him a favor by taking them off his hands. I’m pretty sure he drove his friends’ reading as early as middle school (although I didn’t know him then, so it’s merest hearsay.) Dan is like my mom. Perhaps like my friend Jan, the English teacher with the vast bookshelf of lending books for her students — books she buys herself. They’re superreaders.

This is not meant to impute miraculous powers. While I imagine it’s easier to consume large stacks of literature and promote the chosen few if you read quickly, superspeed is not the defining characteristic: not being content simply to read and enjoy is. These people are boosters, and part of their enjoyment of reading is sharing it. These are the people who will drive the sort of social recommending model I envisioned in “The Future of Genre”. They’re tastemakers, pushers, book evangelists.

Who do you know that takes their love of reading out of the page and into the world? Are you a superreader?

Firsts! (In which I make another sale)

Thursday July 14, 2011 @ 07:26 PM (UTC)

It’s not easy opening a securely closed envelope while carrying the rest of the mail, a set of keys, and a plastic bag full of Chinese takeaway. But sometimes it’s worth it! Teasing open this particular envelope yielded me an acceptance letter from none other than The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, more commonly known as F&SF!

This sale marks several firsts for me. It’s my first fantasy sale ever, and my first novelette sale! (For those of you not up on our obscure lingo, that means it’s longer than my previous short fiction sales — over 7500 words.) It’s also my first sale to this excellent magazine.

The novelette in question is called “Small Towns”, and it’s set just after World War I in Europe. So I suppose it will be my first published historical fiction, as well! I am proud and excited — thanks to everybody who read this story and believed in it, especially my critique group and Ryan!

As soon as I know more about when this story is coming out, I’ll pass it on here. À la prochaine!

Plug plug - Kelley Caspari's Sculpture

Wednesday June 08, 2011 @ 10:36 AM (UTC)

My good friend Kelley Caspari is a splendid sculptor, who’s been working hard on a project she wants to show at Worldcon. She doesn’t like stasis, which is a challenge for a sculptor. She’s taking it on by creating narrative in a bust: she chooses a pair of archetypical characters from stories and myth, and sculpts one bust: half one character, half the other.

Kelley’s an amazing artist and the attention to detail is pretty stellar.

Blind by Kelley Caspari
More angles and details (whose tail is that in the witch’s hair?) on Kelley’s Kickstarter.

This is just one of the two busts, the witch/king one. To see her siren/sailor piece, click on through to Kelley’s Kickstarter page. You can help her name that one, whether or not you donate to her project!

These sculptures are done, but they need to be cast in bronze so that Kelley can show them at Worldcon (imagine trying to transport hundreds of hours of your life in the form of mushy clay in crates), so that’s what her Kickstarter campaign is all about. I’m spreading the word about Kelley’s project because I love her work and I believe it should have a wider audience — even if you aren’t able to donate yourself, I hope if you like her sculptures, you’ll spread the word with a tweet or blog post or status update or what-have-you. She only has four more days to make up the last fourth of her goal! And that is my shameless plug for the month, if not the year.

Creepy Kid Calibration

Monday May 30, 2011 @ 03:58 PM (UTC)

Creepy kids in movies are a thing. I’d go look it up on TVtropes, except that I would lose hours of time reading TVtropes. So let’s just take it as read, as denizens of popular culture, that there are a lot of creepy kids in movies (and TV, and books.) They’re a horror cliché at this point, especially the female version — and why are they so often female? There’s another blog post there, don’t spoil it for me by being brilliant.

Anyhow, the creepy Feral Child in Road Warrior made me think of other movie children I have known, and try to set his creepiness amongst them. I must confess, I initially made this scale run up to a maximum of St. Alia of the Knife, but Ryan disabused me of this notion, arguing persuasively that the scale was recalibrated in 2002 if not earlier. So, feast your eyes on this SCIENCE!


Wednesday May 25, 2011 @ 09:48 PM (UTC)

In Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Ryan tried to attract my attention to a question of logistics. I could not answer, I was entranced by a pink box passing near me.

“Look, it’s a box of home!” I said.


“That girl had a Voodoo Doughnut box!”

Why didn’t you knock her down so I could take them?” Ryan said.

“You’re way bigger than me, why shouldn’t you knock people down in this scenario?”

So I can have the donuts!

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