It Isn’t Boasting if it’s True

Now why is my penis so small?

My god I'm magnificent.

I started reading Ransom by David Malouf and I almost gave up by page 7. Not because it’s uninteresting or poorly written, it isn’t. It’s got lyrical but unshowy language and it’s about Achilles after Patroklus has been killed, good stuff. But he had to go and write this:

Days, years, season after season; an endless interim of keeping your weapons in good trim and your keener self taut as a bowstring through long stretches of idleness, of restless, patient waiting, and shameful quarrels and unmanly bragging and talk. [emphasis mine]

Unmanly? Hardly. You got your modern guilt in my Greek mythology!

Yes, the inscriptions at Delphi are γνώθι σαυτόν and μηδέν άγαν, “know thyself” and “nothing in excess” but that doesn’t rule out bragging… if it’s true. Just don’t lie, don’t claim you’re better than the gods, don’t claim to be a god, just try not to talk about the gods at all, they’re a vindictive bunch. But if you’re actually awesome, talk about it. The Greeks valued arete and time (tee-may, not like time on a clock), excellence and honor, and if you’re on a battlefield with hundreds of other men, you’re going to talk about it. They were hardly the only ones. The Germanic pagans included boasting in their rites.

Malouf is hardly the only writer out there who is misunderstanding the culture. And I hesitate to even go that far. I haven’t finished the book yet, maybe it was just poor word choice. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, it’s how I pushed past page 7. But it has come up, mostly in movies, with men treating women well or thinking of the gods as either loving or remote and uninterested in humans as playthings. While yes, these things are upgrades, I’m a big girl and I can take the nasty bits of history. As long as they’re true.

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Footnotes Ire and other thoughts of the week

Turtles turtles turtles all the way down

*The turtle moves

1. Footnotes are the voiceover of books. They serve to be informative and are illuminating when done right. Mostly they’re done poorly and are distracting and stupid. And don’t even get me started on endnotes.*

2. My favorite style of writing is  the kind employed by Truman Capote, George Orwell, my girl Mary Renault: clear, simple, yet evocative. I don’t mean terse like Hemmingway (though I should give him a try again) and I get put off but extremely flowery language and extended metaphors that go on way too long. I don’t like sitting there wondering “did he ACTUALLY turn into a bird or does he just feel feather-y today?” I just finished In Cold Blood and it feels like a standard piece of journalism but once and a while I would sit back and think “this is actually incredible writing.” And I thought a guy like Truman Capote would be a show-off.

*The only person allowed to do footnotes carte blanche in Terry Pratchett.

The Pain of Being Misunderstood (and Also Knives)

If you ask Colleen McCullough what Caesar was like she would probably tell you he was brilliant, misunderstood, beaten down at every turn and still arose on top (until that time he, yanno, didn’t). Ask Mike Duncan, creator of the History of Rome podcast (recommended), and he’ll tell you about a conniving trickster who only pretended to have Rome’s interests at heart but really only wanted power for himself.

Listening to the podcast while reading the last two McCullough books proved interesting…. And confusing.

It also got me thinking about other divisive characters in history, more and more of them the further back you go. The mixture of extremely different cultural attitudes and diminishing records tends to do that. Depending on who you ask, Alexander the Great was a monster or a benevolent ruler. Judas was a traitor or doing god’s work.

I will defend both of these movies until the day I die

Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese went the kinder gentler route for each, respectively. Hmm, interesting.

This isn’t necessarily a historical problem though. How well do we know anyone’s intentions, motivations, and desires? How well do we even know our own? I wanted a chalupa for dinner last night and now I don’t know why. (Urf.)

From a writer’s standpoint, I think the more ambiguous, the more interesting the character. There’s a fine line, their actions can’t be totally random (see, The Infinities by John Banville, about a family who had long-standing relationships that he never bothered to explain). I’m going to repeat myself and idolize a Harry Potter character but I think Severus Snape is written beautifully. By the end he is given motivations that tend to drive him but he also acts impulsively or has to make decisions quickly. And his nature is still unclear. Yeah he’s cast as a hero by the end but a strong argument could be made that he was a dick about it, selfish and immature throughout. He took pleasure in tormenting an 11 year old because he wanted to bone his mom.

Snape was my first thought but who else, in literature, history, or both? Which characters/people are fascinating enigmas? And which characters do you get into fights with your friends over who’s a bastard and who’s just cuddly and misunderstood?

Pseudo-Feminist Speaks Too Soon

Mere minutes after I shot my mouth off in yesterday’s quick post @trishalynn took to Twitter to prove me wrong.

Her list of non-sexualized heroines…. GO!

  • Barbara Gordon as Oracle
  • Vera Noble, from @trollprincess‘s Heroine Addict novel
  • Violet & Elastic Girl from The Incredibles
  • Jenny Sparks, created by @warrenellis. She was a sexual being, but not sexualized, iirc
  • There’s an female archer out there who is a hero to her people & I think she’s conservative Muslim. Also, Martina Navratilova.
  • Found another, from @shaenongarrity: Kira from The Dark Crystal
Ok, so I don’t know what I’m talking about. But it was a sincere question since I really only could think of one. Characters like Eowyn from Lord of the Rings gave me pause since she is strong on her own but I disqualified her on the grounds of spending most of her time pining over Aragorn before she leaps into the arms of Faramir. But perhaps that isn’t fair. De-sexualizing a character isn’t any good either, she doesn’t have to be a nun to have strength. What are the rules for a Strong Female Character?
The simple answer is probably strength that is all her own, that doesn’t depend on others. So powers of manipulating others doesn’t really count. But then, why not? Angelina Jolie is highly sexualized in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Tomb Raider and she still kicks ass with nothing more than a few krav maga lessons.
So my mistake was trying to make rules about ALL WOMEN when they can only be judged on a case-by-case basis. I’m part of the problem. Apologies.

Proust: I Barely Remembered Thee

Seriously, check out her photostream, it's amazing

photo credit: juliettetang (click photo for more)

I’ve given up reading Proust.

Smart, funny people like him. His is the favorite book of a great many great authors. I wanted to be that kind of snob that made it through all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things ZZZZZZZZZZZ but I just… I just can’t.

When I’m dreading reading a book and have to convince myself to actually pick it up, when I can barely remember what happened a paragraph ago, when I’ve been trying for weeks and am still only a hundred pages in (and that was a heroic effort) it’s time to quit.

I never really quit a book. I thought I had given up on Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake and The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek for good but I finished them both this year. But actually, with both of those, I was helped along by spoilers. I knew where we were headed so that helped clarify what I was reading, especially since those are both written with a very unique kind of style that is in turns awing and infuriating. I don’t know where In Search of Lost Time is going to end up. I don’t even know where the first volume is going to end up. Probably in a field somewhere, with eighty pages on a daffodil. As my boss sometimes likes to say, “put a pistol in my mouth.”

(He does not, to my knowledge, say that about me.)

But I bought the book, it’s there on the pile, so maybe someday, when I’ve got oodles of time and a LOT of coffee to keep me from falling asleep every two pages, I’ll get back to it. Commenters will probably tell me I’ll read it when I’m more mature. But my dad read that thing and he could barely stand it, it was so dull. I wanted to prove him wrong, but gah, what a slog.

It doesn’t help that I’ve got a lot of awesome stuff lined up on the shelf: I’ve already started An Arrow’s Flight, plus I’ve got The Farewell Symphony by Edmund White (one of my favorites), At Swim Two Boys, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, The Infinities, and more.

What does it take to get you to quit a book? What could you just not get through? Or, because I’m nosy, what are you excited about reading next?

I’m a child progeny

In the Forest of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes was published in 1999, when Amelia was 15. My mom bought it for me, a  young writer, then 14, as a way of saying, look! People just like you are publishing.

Yeah. Except I wasn’t. Oh, but Amelia had a year on me, maybe I could write something real quick and I could be a prodigy too!

It didn’t put enormous pressure on me, this is no Mama Rose situation. But I have noticed an instinct to assume that anything done after a certain age is less remarkable than if done young. Oh, you wrote a book? That would be an achievement of a lifetime but you’re (*sucks in a breath*) 40 now? I guess it’s about time, huh?

It’s dumb. Oh you climbed Everest? Big whoop, were you the first? You ran a marathon but you didn’t win?

Try something hard next time

Loserrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

It’s validation based on meaningless metrics. In the case of the publishing world, with Forest of the Night and later the Eragon books, it smacks of an attempt to democratize the industry. It’s not hard to get published! Look, we’re letting KIDS do it. (*pats them on the head, sends them away*)

And it’s a bad excuse to hide behind because even if publishing young is better than publishing old (or “old”), that is infinitely better than not publishing at all.