Tag Archives: Books

Nerd Alert! Community Goes “Ready Player One”

18 May

To inherit the estate of a dead business tycoon, an underdog and his eccentric group of friends must work together to beat a fiendishly difficult video game rife with 80s pop culture references and all the while try to keep a step ahead of an evil corporate cheater.

SF fans might recognize this as the plot of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One.  But substitute “80s pop culture references” with “the racist stereotypes of a moist towelette magnate” and “evil corporate cheater” with “evil corporate Gus from Breaking Bad” and you’ve got the plot of “Digital Estate Planning,” the third-to-last episode of our favorite, increasingly-nerdy comedy Community in this, its third and darkest season.

Carlos Esposito channeling the Sixers in his OASIS haptic rig–I mean, at Hawthorne Wipes.

I love Community.  I wrote a lukewarm review of its second-ever episode years ago for another blog, which I heartily repent.  Not that I was wrong about Britta being self-righteous and super annoying in the first season, because I totally wasn’t wrong.  Now that Annie seems to be established as the new female lead (as Jeff says to Britta in Course Listing Unavailable, “You seemed smarter to me when I met you”), I have no complaints.

How could I, when Dan Harmon and Co. delight in proving their nerd credentials every Thursdays?  Like the red and blue universes at Annie’s Model UN UN-off (Fringe), or the evil Glee club Christmas episode (I completely believe that Will Schuester could secretly be a serial killer.  Sweater vests really are weird).

NBC seems to have a thing for pop culture cross-pollination.  And I don’t just mean Abed talking about tv shows, because that’s just what he does.  (As an aside–I think I remember criticizing Community for being too “postmodern” with the whole Abed-being-constantly-self-referential thing, but maybe postmodern grows on you.)  Anyone else notice that, on 30 Rock last night, the POW Avery communicating on camera through finger-twitching code sub-plot was pulled straight out of Homeland?

Anyway, “Digital Estate Planning” continues that tradition by taking a page (literally) out of Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One, which itself still strikes me as a gamer’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Of course, even for those of you who haven’t read Cline’s debut novel, released last summer to great fanfare from nerds everywhere, Community ep 3.20 is still as entertaining as ever, along with the two others that followed it last night.  Just thought someone should point this out, in the interest of introducing Cline’s fans to Community’s fans, and vice versa (though I imagine the respective fandoms have quite a bit of overlap).

Not much else to say, except, as always:

#sixseasonsandamovie!

* * *

Tudor Thriller “Bring Up the Bodies” Captivates, Again

12 May

I’m far from the only person giving Hilary Mantel a glowing review for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in her saga of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII and his ill-starred wives.  The critical acclaim, international readership, and heaps of awards for Wolf Hall, published in 2009, may have surprised everyone (Mantel included), but there’s been nothing but hype for book number two.

We’ve heard the story a thousand times and, it would seem, in every possible iteration: histories and historical fiction, romance novels and bodice-ripping tv shows like The Tudors.  It isn’t as if the story’s going to change.  History has spoken.  The tale is a tragedy.  And so whatever book you read or film you see, Henry VIII is always going to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn will always find her head severed from her pretty little neck.

All of which makes Mantel’s trilogy-in-progress even more astonishing.  By showing us the mind of Thomas Cromwell–the man who usually features as the villain, if he features at all–in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel somehow makes the story new.

I reviewed Wolf Hall for the University of Alabama campus newspaper earlier this year–after reading it for the nth time since I first downloaded the historical novel onto my Kindle in 2009.  By that point I was getting very, very excited for the release of book number two.

Well, 3 years of waiting and I read Bring Up the Bodies in under 3 days.  I couldn’t help it!  As much as you want to savor every word of Thomas Cromwell’s sometimes-cryptic thoughts and Hilary Mantel’s always- and remarkably beautiful prose, Bring Up the Bodies is even more of a political thriller than Wolf Hall.

The pace ramps us as Henry VIII grows increasingly unhappy with the marriage for which he turned Europe upside down, as Queen Anne grows ever more imperious without getting any more pregnant, and as our do-everything Cromwell works to undo the royal marriage–whatever the cost.  (I think the title gives us a pretty good idea of the lengths to which Henry’s chief minister is forced to go.)

Of course, as we begin to see in this second book, being “the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” takes a toll.  By the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Cromwell had been at the king’s right hand for about a decade–and we, the readers, can see the changes the years have worked in him.  He’s a far cry from the young lawyer of the first book, joking with Cardinal Wolsey at his apogee and doting on his young daughters (all of these people dead by the end of Wolf Hall).  Mantel continues to give us a sympathetic protagonist, but as Cromwell tells himself, a lesson he’s learned in the past 10 years:

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

This is a harder, colder, more confident Cromwell than in Wolf Hall.  Even if he is still plain Master Cromwell (no lordship yet), he definitely has the authority to carry out his plans and the king’s orders (because he is nothing if not loyal to the capricious Henry).  But at the same time, the ground is shifting.

Enemies are rallying.  As Cromwell gains more power, and more money, and more prestige, he (and we) can feel the baleful glares of the old nobility burning holes into his back.  This is a book about beheadings, don’t forget, and there are plenty of instances of foreshadowing–if you happen to know the end of Cromwell’s story.

Knowing how close we’re getting to that inevitable bloody finale makes Bring Up the Bodies a gloomier  book for me to read than Wolf Hall, but no less engrossing.  My heart was pounding by the end, but, I think understandably, it was my neck that I was clutching.

* * *

200,000 Years of Mommy Madness

11 May

Motherhood!  You’d think we humans would have it figured out after 200,000 years as a species.  Apparently not.  While my mother certainly raised a perfect human specimen, thank you very much, TIME magazine’s latest cover (and the bemused, baffled, bewildered responses to it) indicates that questions about what it means to be a “good mom” are still feeding our cultural anxieties.

(Or should I say, they’re still breastfeeding our cultural anxieties?  But maybe that’s a bit much.)

The point is that TIME’s lead story on “attachment parenting,” Dr. Bill Sears, and his devotees liked the pictured mother and son in “Are You Mom Enough?” has already stirred up  controversy and brought moms and motherhood back into public discourse–if, indeed, these topics ever really left us.

In the United States today, the majority of women work.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2010, there were 123 million women in the civilian noninstitutional population, and of this number 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were in the labor force—that is, classified as either employed or unemployed.

Women’s labor force participation is significantly higher today than it was in the 1970s. Women’s labor force participation rate peaked at 60.0 percent in 1999, following several decades in which women increasingly participated in the labor market.

An even greater percentage of American mothers is working also.  Again from the BLS:

The labor force participation rate–the percent of the population working or looking for work–for all mothers with children under 18  was 70.6 percent in 2011.

Cool?  I tend to think so.  My mom worked full-time from the time I was seven or thereabouts (who can remember anything before the millennium anyway?  Didn’t Y2K wipe out all those records?), and I don’t think my sisters and I can complain about much from our childhoods.  Except maybe that our mother did indeed dress a bit like the working women in this old video that we still own on VHS out among the garage spiders somewhere (though I will add that you would never see her wearing loafers with a suit.  It was heels or bust).

And surprisingly for one of my rambling posts, this video is more than a trip down memory lane–watching it now, I wonder why it is that there isn’t a corresponding video called “My Daddy Comes Back” or something.  Is it really so much scarier for children when mommy goes to work than when dad does?  Or is it us, the grown-up video-makers and video-buyers and song-writers and blog-ramblers, that continue to perpetuate that baby’s going to cry only or especially when mom heads off to the office for the day?

Whatever came first, the chicken or the ovum, it certainly seems that working mothers are taking on the burden of this cultural anxiety.  As I understand it, “attachment parenting,” the subject of TIME’s lead story, is a method of child-rearing with the aim of creating a secure bond (or attachment) between parent and child.  Because of the emphasis breastfeeding as one method of fostering that bond, AP proponents especially stress the relationship between mother and child.  And “stress” may be exactly the right word.

Reading about AP theory, I followed a hyperlink trail to Judith Warner’s book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  In the book, Warner discusses the toll and burden that cultural expectations of mothers place on working and non-working moms alike:

Many women of the post-Baby Boom generation simply weren’t prepared to contemplate these kinds of choices.  They didn’t realize just how bad the incompatibility would be between the total freedom of their youth and the culture of total motherhood they’d encounter once they had children.

So while more women are working and more mothers are working women, the pressures that puts on modern women go largely unexplored.  As Warner says, parenthetically:

Happiness has never ranked high as a feminist political goal.

I’m hardly qualified to expound on my own theories of parenting (even if I had some, which I don’t), but as a woman who wants a career and may want children some day, I just want to ask: Shouldn’t it be?

The seeming impossibility of a woman “having it all” is a running joke on tv shows like 30 Rock (with Tina Fey’s career-oriented yet kind of baby-obsessed Liz Lemon).  Just last month the April 19 episode was titled “Murphy Brown Lied to Us.”

I guess I can’t be too surprised.  If the Venus of Willendorf is any indication, even people of the Upper Paleolithic had their own ideas about the feminine ideal.  And I can’t imagine it was any easier for women then.

* * *

In Defense of Well-Read Internet Trolls*

10 May

I learned something yesterday: If you’re going to write a blog about as contentious and controversial a topic as the characterization of classic characters in American fiction (and do it with alliteration), you’ve really got to grow a thick skin.  Everyone has the right to disagree.  And that is something I will defend unto my last keystroke.  I, Isabela Morales, the Scattering’s sole author, do so swear.

See what I did there?  I used my name.  I did that because I personally believe that if I’m ashamed to put my John Hancock to something I publish, then it isn’t really worth publishing.  But hey, we can’t expect everyone to follow that rule.

Come now, does this look like the face of a “brutish faux intellectual” to you?

Anonymity is a valuable and important part of our online experience.  Why then do we, as a culture, tend to despise, denigrate, deride, and disdain people who post more-than-moderately critical comments without revealing their names?  I am here to say that I believe every would-be Internet troll has the right to write unnecessarily aggressive things about academic blog posts without inspiring offense on the part of the author.  Which is why I want to post this not-at-all-spiteful public letter of apology for forcing my objectionable prose on last night’s anonymous commenter.  You see–

In spring 2009 I was taking a course on American humor and satire at my now-alma mater the University of Alabama.  Every week, our professor assigned us brief writing assignments—analyzing either a chapter or character from the book we were reading as a class.  The essays from those classes that I’ve posted on the Scattering have consistently been some of my most popular for years now (maybe because they’re possibly the only useful things I’ve published here), and if anyone can explain why my paper on Mark Twain and religious satire has been translated into Spanish more than it’s been read in English, that would be kind of cool to know.

In any case—the last book we discussed that semester was Catch-22, the bleakly funny (anti-)war novel by Joseph Heller.  The short essay I posted from class was my comparison of leading man Yossarian and his glum number two, Dunbar.  I flatter myself that I provided a few good pieces of evidence to support my claim that Dunbar is Yossarian’s foil; and of course, like a good little college student, I used in-line parenthetical citations for all my quotes (this was before the history department converted me to CMOS).

This all seems like a very long time ago to me, but how easily we forget that the Internet is eternal: once on Google, always on Google.  And it would seem that someone found my little essay today and didn’t find it useful at all.  In fact, he/she seems kind of pissed off that it exists.  I hope, with this letter, written as a public post for completely non-self-indulgent reasons, I can assuage some of Anonymous’s worries.

Ahem.

Dear Anonymous,

I just wanted to let you know how very appreciative I am that you took the time to peruse my “ancient” blog posts until you found one worthy, or perhaps unworthy, as you would have it, of comment—and this especially because reading my character analysis of Dunbar in Catch-22 so clearly caused you great mental agitation and psychic pain.

As an avid reader myself, how acutely do I know the distress that comes when one is thrown into collision with unpalatable prose!  Please know that I extend to you my greatest admiration and, indeed, perhaps even awe, for setting yourself at the vanguard of the Internet’s blog writing style soldiery!  I don’t think that anyone who read the remarks you left on my post of 17 March 2009 could possibly imagine you as anything other but a white knight of wordpress—charging down the RSS feeds of book reviewers with the same courage and conviction that the chevaliers of old (dare I say, of olde?) charged down the jousting lists.

But because I fear that the weight of public opinion might come down against someone who hands down breathtaking accusations and criticism under the name “Anonymous,” I have decided to publish your comments more broadly—for the sake of showing every one of my readers just how much I care what they think about my writing style.

Despite this article being ancient, the following bothers me and so i’ll comment here. I hope you have relaxed your prose by now, but I’m not going to put myself out verifying.

“second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book” – this is annoying. Stop trying to sound pretentious when you simply mean “the second character introduced in the book.”

It doesn’t work and is appalling. Had several complaints leading up to this point, but after this sentence I stopped reading.

That being said, it’s your prerogative to write as you will. You simply come off brutish in your faux intellectualism.

Cheers

Me being pretentious in front of a picture of UA’s founding librarian, my role model in all things, including 19th-century prose.

Anonymous, I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to put yourself out verifying whether or not I have relaxed my prose by reading any more recent posts, considering how dreadfully my writing style irks you.  In fact, I must now regretfully inform you that my prose, if anything, has only grown more contrived, affected, and overblown in the last two years.  And now that I will be entering a doctoral program in history next fall, I can only sigh and resign myself to the fact that I will doubtless be swept away by the currents of stilted academic prose by the time I’m through.

Alas!  Alack!  I should probably leave it at that, to spare you any more agony, but there’s just one thing–

I wonder how you found this post to begin with?  Were you searching for essays about Catch-22 online?  Because if that’s the case, I would trouble you just one more time to ask whether the actual substance of the essay had any bearing on your research.  I hate to think that my grandiloquent diction is getting in the way of my ideas.

Oh, and if I can keep your attention for another moment (and I only make this extended reply because your browser history certainly does not include the search “cliffnotes catch 22”), I’d like to say something about that particular line that you quoted:

Educated people like you and me have probably come across the literary technique of “parallelism” before—you know, constructing your writing in such a way that the grammar of one phrase, say, echoes an earlier sentence.  That’s what I was going for what I started my sentence with “Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity, Dunbar…” and ended it with “… is also second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book.”

Clearly, I failed in that.  Oh well, we all try these things when we’re young, don’t we?

And last of all—hopefully I haven’t taken up too much more of your time or left the taste of poor diction in your mouth, giving you that fuzzy feeling on your tongue that comes when you go to sleep without brushing—I’d like to say a few words about your word choice.

You are indeed a master wit!  I don’t think I’d ever be clever enough to call a complete stranger “pretentious” while myself using terms like brutish and faux intellectualism.  I can only surmise that you wanted to use satire to comment on an analysis of satire.

Which is why I love you, Anonymous.  And how I do love you for this.

Cheers! —IM

* If you can make it through my stilted prose and pretensions to some modicum of literacy, this, Dear Anonymous, is what we faux intellectuals like to call “satire.”  Or perhaps it’s just what my mom likes to call “passive aggressive.”  Why don’t you let me know.

How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

* * *

WWJAT: What Would Jane Austen Think?

4 May

I was intrigued when Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame announced last month that he was writing/producing a youtube series based on that most popular of all public domain novels: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

It’s an interesting idea — setting the story in the modern day, changing some names around (from Mr. Bingley to Bing Lee the med student), and making Elizabeth Bennett a communications student vlogging about her life (and, of course, the marriage schemes of her Southern Belle mother).

It’s not like we haven’t seen plenty of adaptations.  The movies, the fanfiction-esque spin-off series of books, the zombie apocalypse version by the author of soon-to-be-film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (clearly, some of these adaptations have been truer to the book than others).

About this “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries,” however, I have mixed feelings.

The youtube series is cleverly written and entertaining.  The actress who plays our heroine is gives us a great sense of the original Elizabeth Bennett’s rebellious (and occasionally sullen) streak; Lydia’s s preening flirt (a coquette, as Austen would have said); and Jane is sickly sweet.  In terms of characterization, all is well with the world.

Nevertheless, Jane Austen’s novel wasn’t chick lit or paperback romance.  The emphasis on marriage, expectations of women in 19th-century England, and class dynamics in a stratified, straight-laced society made Pride and Prejudice a pointed social commentary.  As of the latest episode, I’m not sure that Hank Green’s version has that yet.

Still, it’s worth the watch: check it out on youtube and decide for yourselves whether anything has been lost in translation.  I’d love to hear what y’all think (and I say that completely non-sarcastically).

50 Watts: Book Illustration Blog for the “Hyper-Literate”

30 Apr

Today I was introduced to a wonderful blog via twitter (apparently it is good for something) — 50 Watts, succinctly described in 140 characters as:

Books / illustration / design. Mostly related to collections and blogs of bibliomaniac Will Schofield.

I’m supposed to be studying for finals (ha. ha. ha.), but for the last hour I’ve been scrolling through 50 Watts’s staggering collection of bookplates and other bizarre illustrations.  It’s certainly a blog that, as the About page will tell you, caters to “that hyper-literate relative you plan to have committed.”

I am that relative.  I suppose most of you are too.

Here are some of my favorites:

"Chimpanzee, holding in one foot a caliper, sits on a pile of books contemplating a human skull;. On one book spine: 'Darwin'; on an open book: 'Eritis sicut deus' (You will be as a god)." Circa 1900.

"Ruth Marten, Une semaine de bonté"
If you read my previous post, THIS, friends, is what John Smith looked like.

"Rafael Barradas for Las aventuras del diablo by Juan Buj (1916)."
Apparently the devil gives people allergies? And flowers are the work of Satan? This must be why Claritin's behind the counter now: For Sinners Only.

Confessions of a Certified Slytherin

27 Apr

Someone who (at age 21 and a half) has read the Harry Potter books innumerable times and been to every midnight showing since Order of the Phoenix is, probably, a little old to be signing up for a kids’ literary enrichment website.  Most of my peer group are the same way–I can walk into almost any classroom on campus and make a comment about the Muggle civil liberties infringements brought about by the International Statute of Secrecy to general agreement and outrage (seriously, don’t Obliviate spells strike you as incredible invasions of privacy?).

So why did we all sign up for Pottermore?

Two words: Sorting Hat.

For over a decade now, almost an entire generation of readers have been wondering what house they would be placed in, should they have been the lucky recipients of a Hogwarts letter to save them from the trials and tribulations of fifth grade and its mixed fraction computations.  Putting on a magical old hat that reads your mind and tells you about the deepest parts of your personality would be super creepy when you think about it, but way cool.  The closest thing we Muggles have to that sort of insight is psychotherapy, and, I assure you, that may be creepy and unnerving, but it’s definitely not fun.

As the series unrolled, I began to resign myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t have been a Gryffindor.  Or if I were, I’d be like Neville in the early books (before he got super badass and faced down Voldemort and friggin decapitated Nagini).

Of course, I had the consolation of relative surety that I wouldn’t be a Hufflepuff either.  I mean, no one has ever accused me of being “warm” or “kind.”  Whatever that means.

I expected Ravenclaw.  Because you see, friends, academic elitists aren’t made, they’re born.  And I’ve been correcting people’s grammar since I learned how to read.*

But as you may have guessed from the title, I’m not an eccentric, quirky, non-conforming Ravenclaw.  I’m not a noble, self-sacrificing Gryffindor.  I’m not a cheery, loyal Hufflepuff whose badger mascot is a little less lame now that the honey badger no longer has to give a you-know-what.

I’m in the house of You-Know-Who.  The house of magical racists and dungeons and snakes that turn people to stone.  I’m a Slytherin.  And as good ol’ J.K. says in her video intro to the sorting process–the decision is final.

The thing is, after a moment of stunned silence as I sat in front of my computer, I realized that it makes absolutely perfect sense.  For more than ten years I’ve avoided seeing it because, despite J.K. Rowling’s insistence that Slytherins aren’t all bad, we’ve never actually seen a good one.  Pottermore tells us Merlin was a Slytherin, which is cool, but as an historian, I’ve got to say that it’s doubtful King Arthur, Camelot, and Merlin ever existed.  It’s probably a myth some woebegone Slytherin made up so her housemates would feel better about themselves.

I should have seen the warning signs long ago, but I refused to look the basilisk in the eye.  It’s done now, and my metaphorical magical heart has turned to stone.  Some of you, dear readers, might be like me: fearing to know your true self.  Maybe you’ve been designated a Slytherin; maybe you’re afraid to put on that hat.  The following is for you.

A Guide to Accepting Your Serpentine Heritage

1. Would you describe yourself as cunning?

The first time Harry and Co. hear the Sorting Hat sing its sinister, sibilant song, the part about Slytherin goes like this:

Or perhaps in Slytherin/ You’ll make your true friends,/ Those cunning folks use any means/ To achieve their ends.

You, like me, may prefer to imagine yourself as a frank, open, straightforward person.  Certainly not deceitful in any inherent sense.  But think back to your past: at any point in your academic or workplace life did you do something like this?

A girl I know–I’m not going to give any names, but she writes some second-tier sci-fi/whatever else blog on wordpress–went to a Catholic high school.  She was diligent, hard-working, and hid her contempt for certain classmates with impressive grace and aplomb.  She had almost all of her classes with the same 20 or so girls, all of them smart, all of them hard-working.  But one in particular annoyed this friend of mine.  That girl was pathologically hard-working.  Like, obnoxiously diligent.  And my friend didn’t like being shown up.  One week near the end of their senior year, my friend’s teacher told the class that there were some extra assignments for those who wanted some points to shore up their grades.  Both my friend and the other girl had better-than-perfect grades in the class.  But that other girl said that she’d do the assignments anyway.

My friend, as I said, didn’t like being shown up.  She knew that the other girl, let’s call her Mary, because she was freakin’ perfect, would get all sorts of brownie points for being pathologically diligent.  My friend tried to explain to Mary that there was no reason to do the additional essay or whatever but no, friggin’ Mary was going to do it anyway.  My friend considered doing the extra work too, simply to keep pace.  But then she realized something: this new assignment wasn’t extra credit.  It didn’t go on top of the grade; it just got averaged in.  Which meant that someone whose grade was already an A+ could actually suffer a net loss in points by doing an extra essay that could only get her an A.

My friend encouraged Mary to write the paper.  My friend didn’t.  And my friend got the highest grade in the class.

Oh, and did I mention?  This was religion class.

I realize that that sounds kind of horrible.  But don’t judge my friend too harshly for her “cunning.”  What she did can be seen negatively, but that’s the easy answer.  If you really think about it, while her motives were hardly pure, her reasoning was perfectly sound.  My friend wasn’t going to waste her time with something that couldn’t benefit her.  Mary was so caught up in her single-minded work-work-work attitude that she didn’t actually stop to think about what was in her interest (I’m going to guess that Mary’s a Hufflepuff).  So you see–cunning isn’t evil: it’s about achieving your goals.

And speaking of goals…

2. Do you have any plans to take over the world?

Or at least, your little piece of the world?  You don’t need to build a giant laser on the moon and try to blow up the earth to be ambitious.  And besides, that’s horribly cliché.

From the Sorting Hat’s next song:

And power-hungry Slytherin/ loved those of great ambition.

There’s nothing wrong with a little ambition, you know.  It’s not all throwing money around and waving silver-headed canes in people’s faces like the Malfoys would have us believe.  Ambition takes determination, hard work, intelligence, and long-term planning.  You have to imagine what you want to be in five, or ten, or twenty years and have the discipline to make those dreams come true.  And you know why Slytherins are good at that?  I’ll tell you why: because, unlike the namby-pamby other Houses, we don’t call them “dreams.”

We call them plans.

3. Do you care about people’s bloodlines?

In its final appearance in the books, the Sorting Hat gives us this even less flattering portrait of the serpent House:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those/ Whose ancestry is purest.”

Okay… not going to bother with that part.  “Pure-blood” talk gives me the creeps.  Let’s just admit that, as a House, we’ve turned out an unfortunate number of seriously nasty characters and be done with it.

Conclusion

The point is, brother and sister Slytherins, that while we may get a bad rap, we just need to own it.  Not the Death Eater stuff, obviously, but the cunning and ambition.  That’s not a bad thing.  It’s more effective than the abstract intellectualism of the Ravenclaws, and do I really need to insult the Hufflepuffs again?  I mean, their House ghost is the Fat Friar and they live in a cellar next to the kitchens.  What else is there to say?  As for the Gryffindors, well, I’ll just quote a badger friend of mine:

“Gryffindors are like Hufflepuffs, except bro-y.”

Well said, friend.  Well said.

*As a side note, and further evidence that I would make an awesome Ravenclaw, I can still distinctly remember at least two years before I learned how to read and write.  My older sister, 2 years above me, was making my mother cry with her staged readings of “The Giving Tree” (friggin communist altruist hippies).**  Meanwhile, I got my hands on a little pink-and-white notebook wherein I would make scribbles and try, to no great avail, to inscribe them with meaning.  I was so jealous I wanted to papercut my sister with her precious book.***

** I apologize.  I worked a summer at the Ayn Rand Institute.  Sometimes this stuff just comes out.

*** Oh god … I totally am a Slytherin.

Thuvia, Maid (or Murderess) of Mars — because everyone loves a girl with a gun

26 Apr

I’ve been having some serious fun with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s  “John Carter” series of the early 20th century lately (I’m on book three of eleven, and like the pioneers of old, it’s Mars or bust! or something).  But since I’ve already reviewed “A Princess of Mars” and kind of “The Gods of Mars,” it’s time to do something super exciting geared at all you history and art history majors out there: using book covers to reflect on persistent gendered and racialized themes throughout history!*  Yes!

* Disclaimer: Now that I am officially a doctoral student in American history I reserve the right to do textual analysis whenever the hell I want.  So let’s begin.

Before I started seeing lukewarm reviews for Disney’s “John Carter” movie a couple months ago, I didn’t know that the film (such as it is) was based on an early-20th century series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, prolific king of pulp sci-fi in the 19-teens, twenties, and beyond.  It seemed strange to me that Disney would be borrowing from a rather problematic book published in 1912, but hey, I didn’t know that musical, animated “Tarzan” was based on Burroughs either.

In any case, it was Spring Break and, being the kind of person who goes home for spring break to read books and play with her family’s cats, was bored.  Also kind of broke.  So it made sense to download free public domain books onto my kindle, and for laughs, John Carter seems to have potential.

I was very quickly obsessed with it.

Of course, being the kind of person who brings her copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Troubles home with her over Spring Break, I can’t help but share some of the interesting things I’ve noticed about women not just in the books–but especially on the book covers.

This is the cover for the first installment in the series, A Princess of Mars.  As you can see, the princess, being a proper Victorian lady (even if she is a Martian who lays eggs), spends most of her time cowering behind her hero.  And she loves it!  And he loves her!  And no one will ever question their respective femininity and masculinity, because, I mean, just look at them.

Most of the first three books deal with the princess, Dejah Thoris, being kidnapped and help captive–first by green alien monsters, then an enemy group of Martian “red men,” and then by evil black people who live underground in the pit of a volcano or something.  Do we sense a pattern emerging.  This is science fiction’s kind of icky extension of the American captivity narrative, possibly one of the first distinctly American literary genres.

Have you heard of Mary Rowlandson?  In 1676, she was taken captive by Wampanoag Indians for about 3 months.  You really have to feel bad for this woman–she watched her friends and family brutally murdered, and then was thrust into a society completely foreign (dare I say alien?) to her.  But like a good yankee lady, once she got out, she had her eye on the main chance.  Rowlandson published a wildly, spectacularly popular account of her captivity in 1682.

Now, for those who haven’t read it 4 or 5 times over the course of high school and college, Rowlandson’s narrative pretty much gets this point across: It’s all about God’s sovereignty.  Haters gonna hate, but God will do what God does.  And on and on.  Rowlandson was incredibly devout, and even during her captivity chose not to make any escape attempts, deciding that it was God’s will that she was there and she would wait for Him to deliver her.

Funny, then, how the second edition of her book included pictures like this one.  “A Female Soldier”?  With a rifle?  That’s not exactly what happened–actually, that’s not at all what happened–but the idea of a forceful, armed heroine seemed to gain some purchase with contemporary readers.

That pattern continued with the story of Hannah Duston, another colonial American woman taken captive by Native Americans in the late 17th century.  Duston didn’t have a gun, but she got her hands on a hatchet and the rest is history.  Really gruesome, bloody, Native American killing history.

People liked that story too.

And they still liked it when Burroughs was writing his second John Carter book, The Gods of Mars, in which readers were introduced to another woman with a weapon: Thuvia.

Like Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was a prisoner of all sorts of different and abhorrent “others.”  Unlike Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was not content to resign herself to fate and hope that her lover would rescue her.  Thuvia got a gun and shot her captor point-blank.  And then, over the course of the next two books, she saved John Carter’s book like half a dozen times.  Most notable example: when John Carter is condemned to die in a gladiatorial-style fight against a bunch of ravenous lion-like alien beasts, Dejah Thoris attempts to kill herself so that she might die with him.  Thuvia uses her animal mind-control powers to save him.  Again.  And when one of John Carter’s crazed fangirls (no really, this is absolutely true) tries to stab Dejah Thoris and steal John for herself (like that’s going to work), Thuvia saves Dejah Thoris too.

She’s super badass.  And four books in, she gets her own starring role with Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

Let’s note the word “maid.”  Especially in archaic and literary contexts, a “maid” is not just a young, unmarried girl–she’s a virgin.  Thuvia is getting a title treatment that would seem to indicate that she’s as pure and unsullied a princess as Dejah Thoris.  Meanwhile, she looms over the corpse of her victim with a bloody knife.  The entire book cover is made to look like it’s been smeared with blood.  And let’s not forget that her first kill was a man who, it was implied, may have, you know, violated her.

Pure?  That’s questionable.

But we’ve kind of had a literary love affair with women with knives and guns and machetes for a long time.  Since the 1600s at least.  And how American is that?

Review: “To Say Nothing of the Dog” (plus, proof that the Victorians really, really loved their cats)

17 Apr

In the year 2057 — when getting a Ph.D. in history is a high-risk endeavor requiring mental and physical endurance, athleticism, a working knowledge of quantum mechanics and Victorian table manners, and, as always, a firm grasp of the Chicago Manual of Style — Ned Henry is a doctoral candidate on a mission. The stakes? If he fails, the Nazis win World War II. The operation? Return a time-traveling cat back to 19th-century Oxford.

For original article in the CW, click this eerie and vaguely misleading book cover! Because it's definitely not about ghost cats, flaming gothic architecture, or disembodied heads.

“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a classic whodunit — if the “it” were causing an incongruity that could rip open the space-time continuum and destroy the universe, and the “who” were a snowy-white feline named Princess Juju.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

That’s the premise of Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a delightfully bizarre literary commingling of sci-fi and historical fiction. And considering that the Large Hadron Collider didn’t result in black holes or time travel technology last year after all, for a novel written in 1997, the science-y parts of the plot hold up. Besides, since most of the action takes place in 1889, Google wouldn’t have done Ned Henry much good, anyway.

And as tangled as the timelines are, this is, essentially, what’s going on.

In 2057, the aptly named Lady Schrapnell is working on a massive project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid during WWII. And because “God is in the details,” she’s employing scads of time-traveling historians to go back in time and find out exactly what the cathedral looked like the night before its destruction.

All that’s left to replace is the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a hideously ugly Victorian flower vase that, according to an inconveniently waterlogged journal entry, changed the redoubtable aristocrat’s some-odd-great-great-grandmother’s life in the summer of 1889 (and thus absolutely must be reproduced in the new cathedral).

But the unthinkable has happened: It’s missing, along with that great-great-something-great-grandmother’s pet cat, both of whose disappearances might just have a domino effect leading to Hitler taking over the world (if the world survives the breach in the space-time continuum, that is).

To say nothing of our hero — Ned Henry is certainly no Indiana Jones. And when it comes to tracking down lost artifacts (or missing cats), he’s no Sherlock Holmes, either. But wearing his straw boater at a jaunty angle, Ned and his partner-in-historical-crime Verity Kindle (perfect name for a historian, right?) are ready to play croquet, host séances and, of course, save the world.

Hold onto your petticoats, ladies and gentlemen, and pay attention to your Western Civ professors — because some day the fate of the universe may depend upon you knowing your groats from your tuppence.

This here ends the book review.

But Now… More Victorian Cats! (or, the tangential stuff I didn’t put in the newspaper column)

Recently I purchased an item of clothing that unites two of my loves: cats and the long 19th century (yes, I am absolutely going to be a spinster historian animal hoarder when I grow up).  After seeing it, my eldest sister (who you may know from long ago posts as Kate the Lostie), who has already grown up to be something of a cat lady, sent me an article that reveals something Connie Willis must have known–Victorians really, and I mean really, did love their cats.

My Sweatshirt, circa 2012

And more Actual Historical LOLcats, circa 1870s (below)
But there are more! (photos from io9)