swan_tower: (summer)

I’m not sure why, but it turns out my last two posts about new Patreon essays going up failed to post as scheduled. My apologies for not noticing that! I’ll keep an eye on it this week and manually push it if I have to.

Anyway, this month we’re talking about art! Starting with a discussion of the lines along which we declare things to be Art vs. Not Art, then continuing on to sculpture and, as of this week, painting — less the specifics of style and technique, more the uses to which we put such things. Comment over there (including on the older posts)!

(Edit: yeah, something’s wrong with WP, as this post also missed going live as scheduled. I’ll look into fixing that.)

swan_tower: (summer)

This interview is fascinating to me because I know basically nothing about cinematography, except insofar as it’s related to photography. So I love it when somebody gets down into the nitty-gritty details about how decisions regarding lenses and focus contribute to inequality, e.g. the fact that women on average speak about 25% of the time in a film + cinematographic technique that puts only the speaker in a shot in focus = not only are the women on screen silent more often than not, but they’re probably blurry as well. Backlighting, specific camera angles — she compares it all to the practice of airbrushing magazine covers, only there isn’t the same degree of public awareness that this stuff is being used to erase women’s flaws and present a constantly-idealized image. Plus lots of interesting discussion on how the relationship between a director and a director of photography differs between movies and TV, male directors and the YA film genre, etc.

On the deep and poisonous stream of anti-Semitism that runs through far too much of white evangelical Christianity. Key quote:

And it doesn’t really matter which “theory” a conspiracist starts with — Moon-landing hoaxers, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, young-earthers, chemtrails, fluoridation, Planned Parenthood, Antichrist OWG, blue helmets, black helicopters, whatever — the belief that the Key to Everything is “the startling news that the media isn’t reporting!” always leads, ultimately, to anti-Semitism.

This got me reflecting on my own childhood. My elementary school had a large Jewish contingent; I’m not sure how many, but my mother estimates somewhere between a quarter and a third of my class. It got watered down as we fed into junior high and high school, joining other elementary school catchment areas, but overall, they were almost certainly the largest minority in my area. Large enough that Jewish kids didn’t stand out as unusual to me — at least, not until those two years where they were all going through their Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations and I learned that being Jewish meant you got a special birthday party. (I probably went to more parties in junior high than any other period of my life.)

But at the same time, we were also in the neighborhood of this church. (In opening that page, I note that a section which used to detail a sexual abuse scandal within the church’s leadership has been removed. A scandal which, for all I know, could have involved kids in my class or my brother’s — the timing was right.) I don’t know how much of that anti-Semitic ideology is present there, or was thirty years ago. But it makes me wonder how much, despite the large presence and general acceptance of Jewish families in our neighborhood, there were still incidents that happened out of my sight or flew over my head. I know the guy I went to prom with gave me the first Left Behind novel to read; I didn’t get more than about ten pages into it because the writing was so execrable, but later I learned that boy howdy are those books anti-Semitic. And there were enough Baptist and evangelical Christians around that I have to imagine some of that was an issue in my community.

Short of randomly calling up my Jewish friends from sixth grade and asking them whether they got shit from our fellow students, I’ll never know. But it’s a sobering thing to consider.

swan_tower: (summer)

All day I’ve been imagining the worst for Notre Dame: a gutted shell, structural collapse, destruction that would take decades to repair.

It isn’t as bad as I feared.

It’s still bad. I saw an aerial photo that showed the entire roof of the cathedral glowing in the night like a cross-shaped pit to hell, which primed me to expect the worst. But things that are good:

There have been no fatalities.

The statues on the spire were removed four days ago because of the renovations.

The clergy, military, and Louvre staff were prompt and organized in evacuating other precious items from the cathedral.

The towers were saved.

This tweet shows the interior; if you look at the photo full size, you can see a fair bit of detail. There’s water on the floor, but only one small portion of the ceiling collapsed, and the stonework throughout much of the nave looks basically untouched to me — not scorched or covered in soot, not damaged, not destroyed.

The superstructure is badly hit, I’m sure, and it’s likely that has caused or will cause problems which aren’t immediately visible. Repairs will still take a long time, and who knows how many days will pass before they can allow visitors again. But after a day of imagining things so much worse than this, it’s a relief to know I overshot — that, though wounded, Notre Dame is still standing.

swan_tower: (summer)

The burning of Notre Dame is breaking my heart.

I’ve read a lot of history. I could fill a whole post with nothing but a list of beautiful, significant buildings lost to fire. It’s happened before, many times, for thousands of years, all around the world. But it’s easy to fall into thinking that it can’t happen now. That sure, ordinary buildings may burn, because we can’t protect everything perfectly — but surely, with all our technology, we can keep the important places safe. The ones that matter not just to a few people, or a few hundred, or a few thousand, but millions upon millions.

But we can’t. Disasters still happen. We are not the unchallenged masters of our physical environment; things can still go wrong.

This one hits particularly hard for two reasons. One is that I was just there: when my husband and I visited Paris in 2013 the towers were closed for repairs, but after Imaginales last May I spent a few days there and got to climb up to meet the gargoyles. I haven’t been able to make myself look at many pictures, much less video, but even a glance was enough to give me that punch of I stood there. Right where it’s burning — I was there.

The other is more distant in some ways, but even closer in others. In 1666 the Great Fire of London burned, among other things, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Like Notre Dame, it was under repair at the time; the scaffolding surrounding it gave the spreading fire an easy foothold. That was 450 years ago, of course — but I researched it for In Ashes Lie, and then I wrote about it, immersing myself in that moment of terrible destruction. When I heard the spire of Notre Dame had collapsed . . . the spire of St. Paul’s had been gone for a century, thanks to a lightning strike, but the tower was still there when the Great Fire began. When it fell, it broke through the floor into a subterranean chapel where the booksellers of London had stored their wares for safekeeping. That image lives in my mind still. Notre Dame hits right where it already hurts, where a part of me has been grieving for a building I never saw.

I can’t follow the news right now. I’ll look when it’s over, when we know exactly how bad the damage is. I presume the cathedral will be rebuilt — and I know, because I read history, that this is part of how history works. That our world is a palimpsest, things erased and rewritten and revised and layered atop one another. The St. Paul’s Cathedral that stands now in London isn’t the building that burned in 1666, but it contains some pieces of it, and the cathedrals that went before (more than one) are all part of the story of that place.

But knowing that scar tissue will eventually become part of the beauty doesn’t make it hurt any less right now.

swan_tower: (*writing)

Some of you may have heard about the Dream Foundry, an organization that aims to provide support and encouragement for new professionals in science fiction and fantasy writing and art. I’m a part of the group, and our project just got rolling in the last year or so (you may have heard some of us talking about it at Worldcon in San Jose); now it’s running its very first Kickstarter! There’s a five-year-plan for getting the entire enterprise up and running, and the purpose of the Kickstarter is to fund the first year of weekly articles and a discussion series. If it meets that goal — which is only $2000, and since we’ve already got $1766, the odds look good — then further funds will be used to extend that funding, recoup startup costs, expand our web presence, pay staff (all of whom are currently unpaid volunteers), and even provide the money to start up a contest for new writers and artists, with a substantial cash award and free workshop for finalists.

There’s an added twist here, which is that the Dream Foundry’s financial people have plans to apply for various grants and such — but in the perverse way of such things, it’s easier to get a grant if you can show a track record of other funding and results. So the more the Kickstarter can raise to get the Dream Foundry going, the better our odds become of keeping it going in the long run.

I got involved because my own career got started with an award and the monetary prize from that, and I’d love to see another such project aimed at people who are new to the field. The people behind the Dream Foundry are astonishingly well-organized, so I have every faith that with support, this can become not just a real thing but an amazing one. Back the Kickstarter now to help make that happen!

swan_tower: (summer)

I recently received a jury duty summons for today. And, once again, it passed without me actually having to report in.

This is kind of a relief for me. The summons in its initial form tells me to report at 8:30 in the morning to a location that, at that time of day, I’d want to allocate more than half an hour to drive to. I normally work until about 3 a.m.; getting up at 7:30 is distinctly difficult for me. It was a relief to check their website last night and discover I’d been placed on “callback status,” meaning I had to check again at 11:15 a.m. to see if they would need me after all — which it turned out they didn’t. And of course I’m happier not having to spend one or more days sitting around a courthouse instead of being at home.

But at the same time, I recognize that spending one or more days sitting around a courthouse is vastly less of a hardship for me than it is for many people. Yes, I’ll be operating on grotesquely little sleep (I’m not the kind of person who can just say “okay, I’m going to bed at 11 tonight!” and make that work), and yes, it’s annoying to uproot myself — but my work is flexible. I can take it with me to fill all the time spent waiting. And if I have to spend a day listening to a court case rather than writing, it isn’t the end of the world. I don’t wind up with a smaller paycheck at the end of the week, nor do I have to arrange for childcare.

So as much as I’m glad not to have to serve, I do feel bad that I dodged that bullet while other people didn’t — people for whom it’s a much bigger problem. There’s no system for saying “I’ll take someone else’s place,” of course, and if there were, I might find my sense of virtue sorely tested. 😛 But I genuinely do believe that jury service is an important civic duty, and I hope that when the day finally comes that I’ve got to be at the Hall of Justice bright and early in the morning, I won’t whine too much.

swan_tower: (summer)

The blogger Slacktivist has a periodic series of posts he titles “Smart people saying smart things,” where he links to and quotes from a handful of solid pieces by other writers. I’ve happened across several great posts recently, so I’m going to steal his approach and modify it a bit here.

A really good discussion of how things change when you got published, and how to bear in mind that meeting you may be a really big deal for a reader of yours — yes, even if you don’t think of yourself as being all that famous. If they love your work, they love your work, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t sold as much as Author A or won as many awards as Novelist N. And while trying to be extraordinary for them may be daunting, you don’t have to be; simply meeting you is out of the ordinary. All you have to do is be a good kind of out of the ordinary — i.e., remember that this may mean more to them than it does to you, and don’t be a jackass. Also, if somebody’s a fan of your work, respect that; don’t grind down their joy by grinding yourself down in front of them. They may love a short story you’re embarrassed by. They may praise the exact thing you wish you could revise out of your last novel. That’s okay. Accept their delight as the gift it is.

I also want to call out one specific thing Mary Robinette said, about taking advantage of people. We see this cropping up a lot in allegations of sexual harassment: some guys are knowingly and maliciously using their social power to get what they want, but others are the equivalent of that guy with the enormous backpack who turns around without first checking to make sure there’s clearance for it. They don’t realize the pressure they’re applying simply by opening their mouths — and because they don’t realize it, they may apply it harmfully. We’re social monkeys; we like to do favors for the shiny monkeys, because then some of their shine rubs off on us. If you’re a published author and you ask a fan to do something for you, pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t exploit their goodwill. Don’t ask them to do things that will be burdensome, or if you do, make sure you compensate them fairly. Always thank them.

A potted history of the different ways internet culture has dealt with trolls across its brief history, and why it keeps on burning us out. What she says about the internet changing so fast — I honestly hadn’t even heard the term “cancel” used in that context yet, because I am out on the very edge of the social media pond, and those ripples hadn’t yet reached me. But this lays out very clearly how we haven’t yet figured out a good way of dealing with social interaction online, and the effects that’s having on other parts of our lives, including the way we interact with narrative media. I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope one exists, and that we find it sooner rather than later. Because the anthropologist in my looks at what we’ve got and wonders how long we’re going to lurch along in a car that’s on fire before we either fix it or decide as a society that getting where we’re going faster isn’t worth the third-degree burns we suffer along the way.

Palmer means stoicism in the specific philosophical sense, not a general “grit your teeth and bear it” approach. I don’t know much about philosophy, so the majority of her post was news to me, and very interesting — tangentially the part about stoicism as a metaphysics, but more to the point, stoicism as ethics. She makes some good points about why it is well-suited to being the philosophy of those in power, and why even for the downtrodden it can be both a wonderful lifeline and a dangerous trap, encouraging us simply to accept the world the way it is, rather than striving to change it. And it also makes me think about writing fiction, and the unexamined assumptions that can be hard to get around in your worldbuilding . . . like the idea that we can change the world, not just in a localized sense, but a general progress one. Humans didn’t always have that idea, and it’s easy to forget that.

What happens when the “Tiffany problem” isn’t about small things like plausible medieval women’s names but rather the lived experience of people around you. I like her point about physical intuition, and how reading broadly can help us build up the kind of instinctive understanding that helps us process what is and is not likely to be true in other people’s lives. It’s an angle on the subject of empathy I haven’t seen before, and reminds me of a thing I’m still flailing at in the New Worlds Patreon, which is how to explain the instinctive feeling I have that some kinds of worldbuilding hang together plausibly and others don’t. Fundamentally, the answer is that I’ve read a lot about a lot of different cultures, so I have that intuition about the ways they work; I’m not sure it’s possible to boil that intuition down to a checklist of questions to ask, without doing the reading first.

(Also, this essay gives me some additional vocabulary to talk about what skills I still lack in the kitchen, so hey, bonus.)

swan_tower: The Long Room library at Trinity College, Dublin (Long Room)

After February’s enormous binge, I read much less in March.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Cory Pietsch. You pretty much can’t be a gamer these days without having at least heard of The Adventure Zone, but I have no good space in my life for listening to podcasts. An episode here and there, sure, but not hundreds of them. So friends recommended I try the graphic novels they’ve started putting out, which also have the benefit of condensing the story — I know from my days studying RPGs in grad school just how diffuse and wandering things can be during actual play. I wasn’t impressed by the first half of this volume, which felt more or less like a typical D&D adventuring party (all male, though one of them is gay) doing the adventuring thing and failing to take anything seriously. It picked up more in the second half, though, and got interesting right at the end, when the characters get introduced to what looks like the real plot. (And, encouragingly, the improvement in the story coincides with female characters showing up.) I’m definitely willing to give the second volume a shot, as I understand the challenge of getting an episodic story moving properly in its first installment — especially one based on the hot mess that is most RPG narratives.

The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson. Read for review with the New York Journal of Books. I loved the setting of this one — at the tail end of the Reconquista, from the perspective of characters in the last Muslim state in Spain just as it falls to Ferdinand and Isabella — and the handling of religion, with multiple levels of piety from characters on both sides of that conflict and an antagonist who genuinely believes that it’s more compassionate to torture someone into converting than to let them burn in hell. The plot didn’t work as well for me, though. The central conceit of magical maps wound up being much less central than the cover copy led me to expect, and the whole business with the Bird King’s island felt to me like the kind of thing where either the elliptical approach is going to click for you and be amazing, or it’s going to fail to cohere much at all. For me it was the latter, especially when a threat reared up out of nowhere essentially saying “Remember me, from two hundred pages ago?” To which my answer was, “not really.” Not a bad book overall, but it didn’t hang together the way I was hoping.

Unraveling, Karen Lord. Also read for review with the New York Journal of Books. Speaking of things that are weird and elliptical . . . but in this case it worked for me. Several of the characters are not human (or at least mostly not) and don’t interact with time the way we do; much of the plot takes place in what amounts to a series of dreams or visions of what might happen. It’s a sequel to Redemption in Indigo, which I didn’t realize until after I was on a plane to Florida with Unraveling but not Redemption in Indigo in my bag; based on that, I can say that Unraveling works even without knowledge of the prior book, though it might read less weirdly with. And now I should go get Redemption in Indigo off my shelf, where it’s been sitting for far too long, waiting for me to read it.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone: Stories, Kat Howard. Freebie book at ICFA, read on the plane home. As the title suggests, a large percentage of these stories riff off folklore in some fashion, and specifically off northern European folklore. The other running theme in them is Women Done Wrong By Men, which will probably speak deeply to some readers, but I am not one of them. The stories that wandered in a more New Weird/surrealist direction often didn’t click for me, but on the other hand I really enjoyed “Once, Future” (novelette at least, quite possibly novella-length), with a group of college students whose class assignment causes them to begin incarnating Arthurian legend, and also “The Calendar of Saints,” set in an alternate history where figures like Galileo are saints of the church, and following a female duelist who winds up at the center of a challenge to the holy Laws of Science.

swan_tower: (*writing)

I’m having nostalgic memories of when my first novel was released, thirteen years ago . . . on April Fool’s Day. (Yes, I spent rather a lot of time persuading myself that no, my editor wasn’t going to say “haha, fooled you!” and then the book wouldn’t come out.) This year I’m managing to dodge that day — which is good, because I have not one but two things out!

The first is New Worlds, Year Two: More Essays on the Art of Worldbuuilding, which you can get at Book View Cafe — i.e. direct from the publisher, and it’s a little bittersweet, because Vonda beta-read this for me — or Amazon US or UK, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, iTunes, Kobo, and Indigo. And if that’s not enough anthropological and worldbuilding goodness for you, there’s always New Worlds, Year One: A Writer’s Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding, the collection from the first year of the New Worlds Patreon.

The second thing out today is my short story “Vīs Dēlendī” at Uncanny Magazine. Their Kickstarter backers got this a while ago, and half of the contents went live earlier, but as of today the entire issue is available for free online: fiction, poetry, articles, and interviews. One (1) Internet Cookie to anyone who can identify the main folksong that inspired this story; fifty (50) Internet Cookies to anybody who can identify the other folksong that contributed to it, without which this refused to cohere into an actual story. (Offer null and void after the podcast interview with me goes live, wherein I talk about both songs.)

No joke! Go forth and enjoy!

swan_tower: (summer)

I saw this news several hours ago, but didn’t want it to come across as a terrible attempt at an April Fool’s joke. Vonda N. McIntyre, one of the founding members of Book View Cafe, has passed away. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two months ago. The news of her illness rocked everyone at BVC; Vonda was a bedrock of our organization, and we’re still figuring out how many of us it will take to fill the gap she leaves behind.

I never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, but she was the beta-reader for my New Worlds collections — a wonderful mix of encouragement and suggestions. And, of course, she was an amazing writer; tributes to her work are popping up all over the place. We will all miss her greatly.

swan_tower: (*writing)

With two years and counting worth of essays in the New Worlds Patreon, there’s a rather large elephant in the room, which is how you communicate all your lovely worldbuilding to your reader. I’ve finally figured out some ways to articulate that process, the first part of which is this month’s bonus theory post.

swan_tower: (summer)

I haven’t nearly finished addressing the topic of cleanliness in human societies — we haven’t even started on personal hygiene — but since the month is nearly over, this segment of the New Worlds Patreon will wrap up for now with trash. Next week, for the fifth Friday in the month, I’ll be back with a bonus essay!

swan_tower: (summer)

My fellow Book View Cafe members and I are exceedingly pleased to announce that our site is now ensconced in a much better hosting platform that will not give us the problems we were having in December and January. In celebration — and to thank you, our lovely readers, who have been so patient through all those troubles — we are having a SITE-WIDE SALE this week, 20% off everything in the store. No coupon hoops to jump through; just load up your cart, and we’ll apply the discount at checkout.

I’ve built up a surprisingly large pile of titles with BVC over the years. If you’re interested in picking one of those up, you can choose from:

Plus a great many more! We have Brenda Clough’s time-travel trilogy The River Twice, Meet Myself There, and The Fog of Time (which came out during our outages and really took it in the teeth as a consequence), and all kinds of titles from Sherwood Smith, Vonda N. McIntyre, Judith Tarr, Laura Anne Gilman, Linda Nagata, Katherine Kerr, and many, many more. We have fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mystery, romance, literary things, funny things, sexy things, informative things — all kinds of stuff. And it’s all 20% off. So come browse our catalogue and help us celebrate our new home!

swan_tower: (summer)

The New Worlds Patreon continues digging into the dirtier side of life with a pass through personal sanitation. Be grateful for the technology we have today . . .

swan_tower: (summer)

You remember some years ago, when Elementary premiered and people were so excited about the casting of Watson as an Asian-American woman?

Meet Miss Sherlock.

It’s a Japanese adaptation — live-action, not anime — where both leads are women. Even now, it’s still vanishingly rare to watch a woman get to be the character so brilliant everybody puts up with her complete lack of manners; add the layer that it’s a Japanese woman, and the effect is kind of startling. She barges into someone’s apartment with Watson (or rather, Wato-san) chasing after her wailing “SHOES!!!!”; after Sherlock, with clear irritation, takes her shoes off like a civilized human being should, she winds up storming out barefoot while Wato-san chases her again yelling “SHOES!!!!”, this time for the opposite reason.

There are so many mystery shows on TV these days that any given one tends to live and die not by its clever plots, but by its characters and their dynamics. I really like both of the main actresses here. Wato-san is adorable, and though she doesn’t measure up to Sherlock’s genius, she gets to have a personal life outside of being Sherlock’s designated apologizer. And Sherlock herself is elegant and sharp, with a ferocious smile. But when a villain starts monologuing about their reasons for the crime, Sherlock collapses onto the nearest couch with her hands over her ears and an expression that says “poke me when they’re done.”

I also like several of the side characters. Inspector Reimon, the Lestrade stand-in, is nice but not all that memorable, but my sister and I instantly shipped with Wato-san with his sidekick, Shibata, who is perfectly competent and has no patience with Sherlock’s b.s. — quite understandable given that he often takes the brunt of it. By contrast, Hatano-san, aka Mrs. Hudson, manages Sherlock quite nicely. Mycroft isn’t notably Mycroft-y — he’s fine, but not more brilliant than his sister — and, well, I won’t say anything about Moriarty, because spoilers.

The plots themselves range around a bit in terms of quality. Mostly good, but toward the end of the season it falls down a bit; Sherlock commits one unforgivably stupid mistake, and the villain’s ability to mess with people gets cranked up beyond plausiblity. Also, it is occasionally more gruesome than I expected, so if that’s an issue for you, be warned. (Not slasher porn levels of gruesome, just “wow, I didn’t expect you to show that wound directly and then shove somebody’s hand in it.”) But I very much hope they get a second season, because I would happily watch another eight episodes of this.

We watched it on HBO’s app; not sure where else it might be available. For those who are interested. 🙂

swan_tower: (summer)

This week’s New Worlds Patreon essay delves into that most fragrant of topics: sanitation! To bait you into clicking that link rather than going “ew, no thanks,” I will use my favorite piece of historical trivia on this topic, which is that there was a time and place in history where human waste was so valuable, people literally stole it. To find out where, when, and why, head on over to Book View Cafe!

swan_tower: (Fizzgig)
Apparently several of my old blog posts just appeared on people’s Dreamdwidth friendslists. All of them reference gambling, and had spam links inserted into them that were NOT there before. From this I conclude that my account was hacked somehow.

I’ve changed my password and edited those links out of the posts. But if you’ve seen things posted from me today that aren’t “On Cruising,” “Wheel of Time side post: On Women,” and “A Memory of Light Liveblog Part 2,” please let me know, so I can go clean them up. And if you’re getting comments suddenly on old posts of yours, check to see if they’ve been interfered with, too.
swan_tower: (summer)

With the second year of the New Worlds Patreon having wrapped up, it’s time for it to emerge from its chrysalis as a beautiful butterfly ebook! New Worlds, Year Two: More Essays on the Art of Worldbuilding is now up for pre-order at Amazon US and UK, Barnes and Noble (Nook), Google Play, and Kobo. iTunes and Indigo will follow shortly. The book will be out on April 2nd!

NEW WORLDS, YEAR TWO by Marie Brennan

Also, a glitch with the plug-in I use to crosspost from my website to Dreamwidth recently glitched. Everything still crossposted . . . but on a private setting, which means none of you could see it. So if you missed it, the posts were, in sequence:

Goat cheese

Mar. 4th, 2019 10:41 am
swan_tower: (summer)

The other day I was at the grocery store, and the cheese counter had samples out of something. Another customer was standing between me and the actual blocks of cheese the samples were taken from, so I had no idea what they were, but I went ahead and popped one in my mouth.

Train of thought: “Oh, wow, this is amazing, this is — UGH BLEAGH IT’S GOAT CHEESE GET IT OUT GET IT OUT GET IT OUT.”

I have no idea what’s going on chemically with goat cheese, but invariably I have this type of reaction, where for a second or two it’s lovely, and then I get hit by a freight train of something so unpleasantly pungent, it lingers with me for a good five minutes afterward. Much as with cilantro, I don’t think I could train myself into liking it if I tried for a year: when that taste kicks in, my brain utterly rejects the possibility that what I’m eating is food.

Those of you who like goat cheese — is that pungency a selling point for you? Or does it not even hit you in the same way? (Wikipedia describes goat’s cheese as “tart,” which is not remotely the taste I get off it.) I’m wondering if this is anything like the “supertaster” deal where some people can’t taste phenylthiocarbamide or propylthiouracil, while for others (I’m one) they are unspeakably bitter. I know my reaction to cheese in general is linked to the fact that I have a very strong sense of smell; your stinkier classes of cheese are Right Out for me because all I wind up tasting is the stink. But this wasn’t a strong-smelling cheese, and it still bowled me over with that unpleasant funk two seconds after I bit down. So I’m kind of curious what’s going on there, chemically speaking, and whether the experience is just qualitatively different for people who like the stuff.

swan_tower: (summer)

This was an extremely reading-ful month.

Tales of the Continuing Time and Other Stories, Daniel Keys Moran. Some collections of short fiction are a great entry point into a series, a way to get a taster and see if you’d like the whole. This . . . is not that type of collection. 😛 I enjoyed it a fair bit, and certainly the non-Continuing Time stories are perfectly readable on their own, but I do not recommend it as an entry point to the series. For people who already know and enjoy those books, though, it’s nifty to get some looks at things that have only been mentioned obliquely before now: the Zaradin Church, the Exodus, the House of November, Ola Blue, etc. And the Man-Spacething War! Its name has amused me ever since I first saw it, and from what I can tell, its origin is exactly what you’d expect: humans ran into weird things out in space, called them Spacethings, got in a war with them, the end.

Of the non-Continuing Time stories, I most liked “Realtime,” which he co-wrote with Gladys Prebehalla (and which is in the same setting as his novel The Armageddon Blues, but I have zero memory of that book, so it doesn’t matter). It made me think a bit of the whole “children will listen” thing from Into the Woods. Of the Continuing Time stories, I was a little bit gutted by “Leftbehind” — simply because the leftbehind concept echoes what Trent said to Carl in Emerald Eyes about how the Castanaveras were going to leave everybody else out in the cold . . . and now here it is, hundreds of years later, and I’m pretty sure the people compared to whom others are leftbehinds are a direct outgrowth of something Trent himself did in between The Last Dancer and The A.I. War. He presumably didn’t live to see it (because hundreds of years later — though really, with this series, who knows), but he created for others exactly the situation he himself wanted to escape.

The Last Tsar’s Dragons, Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple. Novella, read for review in the New York Journal of Books. Slightly alternate history, in that Tsar Nicholas didn’t actually have dragons, but history still proceeds down basically the same path. As a result, definitely not chearful reading.

Grim Tales, E. Nesbit. Speaking of not cheerful reading! When I posted about The Phoenix and the Carpet, Sonya Taaffe recommended Nesbit’s short horror fiction, and I found this collection on Project Gutenberg. I can’t say I fell in love with it, but then again, horror isn’t my general cuppa anyway; I don’t like downer endings very much, and in horror those often come with the territory. (Though I’ll note that one of the stories in here ends well for the protagonists, and while someone else suffers, it’s more an unfortunate accident than anything malicious.) It’s definitely an interesting comparison to Nesbit’s children’s fiction, though.

The City of Lost Fortunes, Bryan Camp. First Crescent City novel, and a great example of urban fantasy firmly embedded in a specific place at a specific time: New Orleans (Camp’s hometown), a few years after Hurricane Katrina, with the scars of it still felt everywhere. I’m not the right person to judge how he handles racial matters here, but I can say with certainty that he is paying attention to them, and I appreciated the sheer global breadth of his knowledge in the various omniscient-voice reflections on patterns in mythology. (He references gods I’ve never heard of, which is a rare thing for me.) He also does a very good job with tricksters.

Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Kate Wilhelm. I’ve had this on my shelf for a dog’s age without ever reading it, and when rearranging things recently I figured I should take a look and chuck it if it isn’t of use. Interestingly, I think its greatest use is not for students of writing, but teachers: the examples of how they explained certain issues, or constructed exercises, or handled interpersonal conflicts with their students, very much spoke to me as someone who has taught writing before. (Even if BOY HOWDY do I not agree with some of Wilhelm’s prose bugbears, like how “The book sat on the table” is not an okay sentence because an inanimate object can’t sit. Honey, that linguistic ship sailed a loooooong time ago.)

My own work doesn’t count. (Different work this time than before, though.)

Gather the Fortunes, Bryan Camp. Second Crescent City novel (not yet released), and not a conventional sequel, in that it shifts to a new protagonist — a secondary character from the first book. I’ll be reviewing this one for the New York Journal of Books; for now I’ll say its structure makes it slower to get moving than its predecessor, but I like the story’s willingness to call even gods and the afterlife out when there are problems.

The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Volume 1, Ramesh Menon. This is the fourth rendition of the Mahabharata I’ve read, and by far the longest; together the two volumes are nearly 1400 pages, and large pages at that. And at that, it’s still not complete! There are footnotes saying things like “Here I am skipping over fifty pages of how the Pandavas went out and subdued kings in various places for Yudishtira’s rajasuya.” Nor is it precisely a translation; as the title suggests, it’s more the Mahabharata retold with some modern fiction techniques. But it isn’t quite a novelization, either, the way Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions is — that being the second rendition I ever read. I do recommend it (the writing is a lot better than Subramanian’s rendition, which I thought I posted about but apparently not), but only if you’ve already got a good enough grip on the shape of the story that you’re ready for a version that includes a lot — though still not all! — of the narrative byways. I may need a little while before I’m ready to tackle Volume 2.

Ice Melts in the Wind: The Seasonal Poems of the Kokinshu, trans. Larry Hammer. Much, much shorter than the previous. 🙂 I really like Hammer’s translations (disclosure: he’s a friend); not only does he stick pretty closely to the shape of waka/tanka rather than throwing line length out the window the way some poets do, but he includes notes on every poem that give you context about the poet or the circumstances of composition or the history of Japanese aesthetics or just his own observations on how this is the best poem so-and-so ever produced but it’s still not all that great. It is not Hammer’s fault that if you pile up all the seasonal poems they start to get astoundingly repetitive; if you want a more varied selection of Heian-era Japanese poetry, his book One Hundred People, One Poem Each translates a different collection that includes some of the Kokinshu seasonal poems, but also poems on other topics.

The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart, Motohisa Yamakage. This . . . is not quite the book I thought it was when I picked it up. Motohisa Yamakage is the 79th leader of Yamakage Shinto, and this book talks about how that’s a tradition from Koshintō, i.e. “old Shinto,” i.e. the original version of the religion. Except that further digging elsewhere showed me that everything which calls itself a Koshintō tradition is actually what in Japan get classed as “new religions” — which makes sense when you reflect that everything we know about Koshintō is a reconstruction, there being not much in the way of written records about religion in Japan prior to the advent of Buddhism. And while 79 generations of leadership made me think Yamakage Shinto must be pretty old (most “new religions” are post-Meiji, i.e. roughtly 150 years old or less), well, it depends on the length of tenure for each leader, doesn’t it? Maybe this goes back to the Edo Period, but Real Original Shinto it ain’t.

Which isn’t the same thing as saying the book is useless. From what I can tell, the early chapters about the origin of sacred sites and purification and so forth are reasonable, and where it’s speculating (e.g. the meaning you can derive from each step of Izanagi-no-mikoto’s purification after visiting the underworld), it’s the kind of speculation I consider entirely reasonable for a religious leader to undertake. When it gets to the part about how performing these hand gestures and reciting these words will develop your psychic ability to sense the vibrations of spirits and also lead to medical recovery that astonishes doctors . . . then we’re pretty clearly more in “new religion” territory. And even then, it’s still a window into Japanese religion, which is a useful thing for me.

Deathless, Catherynne Valente. Re-read. I’d forgotten how quickly this one reads — I devoured it in about two sittings, for all that it gets horrifically depressing toward the end. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a retelling of a Russian folktale about Koschei the Deathless and the warrior princess Marya Morevna in the context of early Soviet Russia — the interwar period up through World War II. I still think the ending comes apart a little bit, but at least this time through I recognized who the people were in Yaichka . . . in part because I’d just read The Last Tsar’s Dragons, which prompted me to look up a lot of stuff about twentieth-century Russian history they never taught me in school.

No Saving Throw, Kristin McFarland. Mystery novel written by a client of my literary agency, which her agent sent me because she knows I’m a gamer. You know how police procedurals and other mystery shows often have that one episode where they’re dealing with gamers? This is so much better. The author is a gamer herself, and the heroine is the proprietor of a Friendly Local Gaming Store in a conservative town that isn’t sure what to make of her whole enterprise. When one of her customers dies during a vampire LARP and some of her other customers are accused of the crime, she’s worried the scandal will kill her store and the community she’s built around it. This cross-hatches with plot about being a small business owner and the difficulties such people face. I correctly guessed some but not quite all of the plot, which was a nice balance. The subtitle “A Ten Again Mystery” suggests McFarland is hoping to do more with these characters; if so, I’ll be interested to see how, as one of the things this book pays attention to is the way in which amateur investigators blundering around trying to play Nancy Drew can actually make things worse — so I don’t expect the heroine will be in a hurry to do that again.

Shinto Shrine, Kato Kenji, illustrated by Iwasaki Jun. — Names given in Japanese order (family name first), as that’s the way it’s done on the book cover. This is a very small book with 300% more practical information than Yamakage’s, and 500% less woo. In fact, it won’t tell you anything at all about the lived experience of Shinto religion (which is what I was hoping for from the Yamakage, and . . . partially got?). But it does an absolutely excellent job of explaining the parts of a Shinto shrine to you — complete with drawings and numbered keys — and what people do at shrines, and then the back half of the book is mostly a list of major jinja and who’s enshrined there, which names off a lot of kami that aren’t the ones you’ll run into if you google “Shinto mythology.” It’s also part of a series called “Bilingual Guide to Japan,” and now I’m curious what other volumes there are.

Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson. — I, uh, may have posted on Twitter that I didn’t need to read another book just so I could say I had finished one an average of every two days throughout February, and people there, uh, may have egged me on. <_< So I picked up this collection, which is the second by Hopkinson that I’ve read, after Skin Folk. It’s less overtly steeped in Caribbean folklore than I recall that one being, but that element is definitely is still present, as is the general sensuality I associate with her work. I did notice, though, that her shorter stories didn’t work as well for me — I found myself really wanting more meat on those bones, the way you get with her longer short stories.

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