Thursday, September 29, 2011

"I don't believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again"

Last Christmas, at my parents' house, my nieces (who were about 16 months old at the time) kept telling us that they wanted to be read to, but every time their mother, codename: Cordelia, began a new book, they would get distracted, wander around, then come back a few minutes later with another book, asking to be read to. They didn't seem to know what they were looking for.

Then Cordelia picked up Where the Wild Things Are. It was their first time ever seeing this book. Both girls went still; both girls watched and listened, entranced, to the entire story.

I felt that something I knew in my heart about books -- especially our very best books -- had just been proven true.

Here's a recent Fresh Air interview with Maurice Sendak. It's about 20 minutes long. As my sister codename: Apocalyptica told me when she sent me the link, it will make you happy and it will make you cry.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Okay, Mulder, but I'm warning you: if this is monkey pee, you're on your own."

That's what Scully says to Mulder when Mulder hands her a flask of yellow liquid that came from a laboratory full of caged monkeys, gives her one of his significant "no-doubt-it's-evidence-of-extraterrestrial-life" looks, and asks her if she can figure out what it is. And in this case, it does turn out to be evidence of extraterrestrial life. This is the X-Files first season finale ("The Erlenmeyer Flask"), and one of the earliest examples of Scully, the skeptic, having no choice but to believe, because the evidence comes to her in the lab, through the practice of her own religion, namely, science.

I ♥ Scully.

So, I just noticed the weird, highly specific, wordy recommendation categories Netflix has created for me, based on my viewing and rating preferences. "Foreign Thrillers Featuring a Strong Female Lead." "Critically Acclaimed Visually-Striking Dark Movies." "Inspiring Fight-the-System Movies Based on Real Life." "Mind-Bending Sci-Fi and Fantasy Based on a Book." "Family-Friendly Talking Animal Animation." (??) "Heartfelt Period Movies Based on Classic Literature." "Classic Crime Movies from the 1970s." This is all very helpful. The next time someone asks me what kind of movies I like, I intend to reel off this list. Except, I'm actually rather confused about a number of those categories, plus, why hasn't Netflix figured out yet that I love a category that can be named with a single word: "Bollywood"? Or, where's "TV Mystery Based on Close and Complicated Partner Relationships, Not Necessarily Romantic," like Bones, the X-Files, Inspector Lewis? Etc.? That's what I want recommendations for, please.

I'm pretty unimpressed that the cost of my Netflix service has risen sharply while the value remains the same, but I haven't had time to figure out if there's anything to be done about it. I think corporations must make a lot of money off of people who don't have time to react to their crap. I know Bank of America is still making a lot of money off of me for that reason. (Here's a link to my previous post about how much I hate Bank of America.) I'm moving forward with closing my account there, but it's taking ages, simply because it requires time. I'm determined to be done with it by the end of the year. And then I will raise a glass in celebration, and never do business with them again.

Have I been a bit ranty on the blog lately? Hopefully not. I've been a bit ranty in real life. Ah well. I'm taking a brief vacation which will involve watching 8,000 gallons of boiling water shoot 150 feet into the air on a regular basis, and when I get back, either the cathartic experience of this sight will have helped me reach a place of peace within myself or I will predictably rant on at regular intervals, not unlike Old Faithful. Both options seem fine to me. :o)

I've set something nice up to post on Thursday, while I'm away. Also, I've been assured by The Powers That Be that I'll be allowed to gives some news about Bitterblue very, very soon. (To be clear: that's not what's posting on Thursday.) I'm really sorry that it's taking so long. I like to create momentum and tension in my books by revealing things slowly, but I don't actually like to do that on my blog. It's out of my control, but I expect to have the go-ahead soon.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pretty Maps

This week, my happiness about Elizabeth Warren running for Senate in Massachusetts...

(transcript here)

...combined with this (funny? offensive? certainly clever, certainly reductive) t-shirt for sale at Threadless Tees...

(click on it to enbiggen; you can buy it here)

...combined with my recent perusal of maps because I'm going on vacation next week to a part of the country I barely know at all...

(no picture for that one, sorry -- though maybe there will be once I get back!)

... all got me searching the internets for something I'd remembered seeing once before. I found it. It was created by Mark Newman in the Department of Physics and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan. Here it is:

What is that purple monstrosity?

Well, many of you will recognize this:

It's the results of a USA presidential election (in this case, 2008). Blue is for Democrat, red is for Republican; each state is colored either red or blue to represent which party the majority of voters in that state voted for. The winner on a state-by-state basis matters, completely, because of our weird electoral college system.

And perhaps some of you will recognize this:

Two new things are going on in this map. First, the map is divided into counties, rather than states, to better show variations within any given state. Second, rather than straight red (Republican) or straight blue (Democratic), most areas on the map are a shade of purple, representing percentages of voters in any given county voting for either party.

Doesn't this feel like a more accurate representation of voter behavior than the straight red state/blue state map? There is a LOT of purple on this map. Of course, we elect the president via state results, not county results, and populations vary from county to county, so it has no direct relevance to the results. But if you've been a blue voter in a red state or a red voter in a blue state, this map definitely represents you better than the straight red and blue map.

But there is still one enormously relevant thing it fails to represent! Returning to the purple monstrosity:

This map is called a cartogram. It's a map which shows the relative size of counties by population, rather than by area. That's why everything seems distorted. On this map, Rhode Island takes up twice as much space as Wyoming, even though in area, Wyoming is sixty times bigger than Rhode Island -- because Rhode Island has more than twice as many people than Wyoming.

There are hardly any plain red (Republican) spots on this map at all. There are some places that look plain blue (Democratic) -- mostly the big cities.

See how mixed-up and evenly divided we, and our opinions, are? See the political diversity of our neighbors? I'd like to get that on a t-shirt!

Here's where I found all these maps, plus more maps I didn't show, and all the explanations. All maps are © 2008 M. E. J. Newman. Thanks to Professor Newman for allowing the free distribution of his text and images. Go check out the webpage, it's interesting stuff.

And thanks to JL for links.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday Randutiae

So, when I posted about Winter's Bone a few weeks back, I didn't realize that the main actress, Jennifer Lawrence (whom I greatly admired), is our future Katniss Evergreen. (Edit: EverDEEN. Can I blame that on my voice recognition software? It's clearly read Harry Potter and a lot of Charles Dickens, but The Hunger Games must still be in its TBR pile.) Here's a link to portraits of the cast of The Hunger Games, which will be released... I have no idea when. But I'm sure it's easy enough to find out. *coughs lazily* I hope for your sake that when you click on the link, you're not compelled to watch a preview of the new tv show The Playboy Club like I was. Gee, that show doesn't look like it's going to be demeaning to women or anything.

But at least I can scrub my brain clean with the news that Elizabeth Warren is going to challenge Scott Brown in the next Senate race in Massachusetts. Elizabeth Warren, you have my vote.

Next, I would like to officially state my opinion that the reason Masterpiece Mystery hired Alan Cumming as its host is so that at the end of every introduction, he can drop his voice a register and say the word "murder" as only a Scottish person can. This little promo video starring Cumming doesn't end with the word "murder," but at least you can get an idea of what I mean.

Finally, thanks to my friend Kristin for sending me this video of magical creatures walking on the beach. The kinetic sculptures, made of plastic tubes and lemonade bottles, are by Dutch artist Theo Jansen; The New Yorker is the source. The creatures are called Strandbeests. :o)

(If you loved that, I highly recommend Theo Jansen's 8-minute TED talk (below), in which he explains a little more about how they work and what he's trying to do.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

(Says Hamlet, who thinks himself straight down the path to disaster, but anyway. I've been thinking about thinking, and the ways that thinking can be good. ^_^)

FAQ: How would you respond to an interpretation of Graceling that reads Katsa and Po's relationship as abusive?

(Okay, this isn't actually a frequently asked question, but I was asked it once.)

I think that every reaction to a book is genuine, and every interpretation that can be supported by the text is valid. People read the same book and come to different conclusions; no one has a claim to some sort of absolute truth about a book. What I hope is that if someone who doesn't interpret the relationship as abusive encounters someone who does, the person who doesn't will listen to the person who does, rather than dismissing their interpretation without thought, or trying to shut them down. In my wanderings through all parts of the Internet, I see way too many people shutting down other people's concerns, rather than pausing to think, "Hmm, does that person maybe have a point? Could their interpretation be valid, even if it's not my interpretation?" Taste and interpretation truly are subjective; too many people don't allow for that.

In fact, I think this could lead to some really interesting conversations. Now I'm going to be a devil's advocate. What if we decided to assume, just to see where it takes the conversation, that it is an abusive relationship? What does that mean? Who's the abuser? What would it say about the characters, their relationship, their mental health, their future, or the overall feeling of the book? What other questions can we ask? What I love about a conversation like this is that it expands our ways of thinking about and interacting with books. It makes us see new things, and it also tests the soundness of our initial reactions and feelings (and sometimes strengthens them -- or creates cracks in them). Sometimes, it helps us hold contradicting opinions at the same time. It adds complexity and multiplies possibilities. I think that's a good thing.

Of course I'm interested and concerned when I hear an interpretation like this (and trust me, I have heard many conflicting interpretations, about both books, including this one. When I say interpretation is subjective, I do so from an EXCELLENT position for observation!). So I would add to the above that my response is to think about it a lot, maybe talk to a couple friends, and, whether or not I find that I agree, add it to the huge list -- or maybe it's more of a web -- of thoughts, feelings, and dynamics that I try to keep in mind while writing the next book.

(If there's anyone out there who's disappointed by this post because you think the author should explain how her book is meant to be read -- I don't think any author has the right to do that. You'll notice that I haven't even given my own opinion on this interpretation, or any other interpretation; that's because I'm worried that my opinion would influence your opinion. The book serves as its own explanation; go to it for your evidence and come up with your own interpretations. Have fun!)

Thanks to Deborah and Marc for helping me formulate my thoughts for this post.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Another Plug for This American Life

I liked This American Life's approach to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Instead of focusing on the day itself, they interviewed people affected in different ways by 9/11 who've appeared on the show at various points in the past ten years, and talked to them about how the world has changed, and where we are now.

I have enormous gratitude to This American Life for understanding and allowing me my complicated, messy, self-critical understanding of what it means to be American in the world. The folks there understand that being deeply ashamed of your country and furious with your government never precludes loving your country fiercely, or grieving for those whose lives have been torn apart. They get the difference between governments and individuals, between armies and soldiers. And they get that there are many different ways of being heartbroken.

I guess I'm trying to say that I love this radio show because it allows things to be confusing, contradictory, and inexpressible. It doesn't force things into a false neatness just so we can all understand and feel good about ourselves. I wish there were more places in life where it was okay to be like that. And I'm grateful that TAL was there to help me process my feelings today.

If you'd like to listen to their tenth anniversary show, the options for doing so are here. I probably don't have to tell you this, but before you pop off glibly to listen to it before your lunch meeting with your boss or your algebra test or whatever, do remember that it's really, really sad.

To my readers in Australia: I notice that Ira Glass, the host of the show, will be in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne this January.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Library Stuff and Movie Things

In case you've not heard about the libraries devastated by Hurricane Irene, here's a post from Kate Messner with info about how to help. (Update: this blog post has more, and possibly more complete, information!)

Also, do you have a teeny tiny library in your town? (Thanks, R, for the link.)

In other news, I recommend the Bollywood movie Band Baaja Baaraat, and think it's a good movie for anyone who's never seen a Bollywood movie, wants to try, but doesn't know what to watch first (along with Main Hoon Na and Dil Bole Hadippa, to name two others). What I particularly like about this one is that not only do I like the female lead (Shruti, played by Anushka Sharma), but I like what the movie does with her. Often I admire the woman's character but have some lingering annoyance about the role she's required to play... but this one balanced out for me. It was a fun watch! Now, will someone explain to me why newcomer Ranveer Singh was credited first when Anushka Sharma is already an established star and the story is as much hers as Singh's? Not as annoying as Shahid Kapoor getting first billing over superstar Rani Mukherjee in Dil Bole Hadippa (when she carried that movie and even played two roles!), but I still call shenanigans.

In a completely different category (beautiful and sad, sad, sad) I watched and LOVED the German movie The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). A story of the Stasi (the secret police of East Germany) in 1980s East Berlin, and the people they terrorized. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who is, apropos of nothing, rather tall.

Monday, September 5, 2011

My Thoughts on Writer's Block

First, unrelated, and from the Department of Misheard:
Me: I just noticed that this bag I'm carrying discriminates against lefthanders!
JD: Against werepanthers!!!?
(Those of you who watch True Blood may have surmised that my friend JD watches it too.)

Now. I get questions from time to time about writer's block and how I deal with it, and I thought I'd try to write some thoughts down. My problem with this issue is that I don't really understand what people mean when they talk about having writer's block. Philip Pullman says he doesn't believe in it. "All writing is difficult," he writes. "The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don't get plumber's block, and doctors don't get doctor's block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?"

Now, I won't go so far as to say that I don't believe in writer's block... maybe I'm misunderstanding, or maybe I've just been lucky. But when asked, my thoughts take me in two directions.

1. If "writer's block" refers to the hopeless confusion of not knowing what to write, having an "I don't wanna" feeling, and knowing that if one sits down to write, it's going to be hard and the product isn't going to be very good... well, then OF COURSE I've had that. I've had it for weeks and months at a time. That's not writers block. That's writing. Or more accurately, it's one of the possible states of writing (maybe I should write a post sometime on the multiple states of writing). Welcome to writing! Get used to all those bad feelings and don't let them make your decisions for you. Understand that the only way out of that kind of blockage is through (to paraphrase Robert Frost). If you wait until you feel like it, or until some higher power starts sending genius inspiration through your fingers, you're going to be waiting a long time. Just WRITE. Write crap and keep writing; figure out what you hate about it and write it all over again; then again, then again; and eventually, through the process of elimination, you'll start to get a sense of the nature of the things you're writing that feel wrong, and this will lead you to some clues about what it is you do want to be writing. Writing something right is often about writing something wrong two or five or ten times first.

Plus, in the process, you'll be getting practice at one of the most important skills a writer needs to perfect: the ability to be objective about his or her writing and recognize when something needs to be fixed/rewritten/revised. It's a kind instinct to contradict the writer who says that what she's working on isn't very good -- to tell her, "Oh, I'm sure it's not that bad" -- but I think that a lot of the time, the writer is merely being honest. After all, the writer knows. It's a writer's job to know when something isn't what she means it to be; it's a skill writers work really hard at, to be able to step back, look at their writing as a reader, and see the ways in which it isn't nearly good enough, yet. Hopefully the writer also knows that hard work can, and will, make it better.

Don't ever let other people minimize your work or convince you that writing should be easy. Don't look at your crappy writing and let it convince you that consequently you must be a crappy writer. If you can recognize that it's crappy, that's the first step! :o)

If what I've described here is what you're calling writer's block, I do have sympathy, because I've been there and will be there again. But if you really want to write, then you'd better get used to it and soldier on.

2. On the other hand!

I firmly believe (having learned from both experience and observation) that a writer is not always meant to be writing, and sometimes can't. We have to learn to listen to ourselves. Sometimes, in addition to the whiny feeling of "I don't wanna," there's a voice that's trying to tell me, "No, quite seriously: I do not want to do this right now, and in fact, I can't, not without pushing too hard and doing damage to myself. It's not working and I need a break. I need to let my energy rest with something else for a while." Maybe that "something else" is something that's arisen in my life -- a crisis, a transition, a pending decision, something else I'd like to try -- or maybe it's nothing special or particular, just a new focus, or a quietness, stemming from the realization that now and then, a person needs a break.

If this is what people mean when they talk about writer's block... well, I think that in this case, if circumstances allow, a person should respect the block. Stop cold. Do something else for a while, and wait until you want to write again. There is nothing wrong with needing a break and there's nothing wrong with not writing. There's nothing wrong with the break you take lasting days, weeks, months, even years. There's nothing wrong with never writing again, if you decide that's what you want.

I guess the tricky part is knowing whether the block you're experiencing is the whiny "It's hard and I don't wanna" or the more serious "For whatever reason, my craft is in need of a break." I think the distinction is something you learn from experience; or maybe it's a distinction you never really learn, and end up spending a lot of time muddling through it messily. That's fine. Sometimes messes are necessary; they should be allowed. Great things come from throwing yourself into a mess; peace comes from messes.

On that helpful note... sigh....

Before I go, I want to acknowledge again that I speak only from my own experience, and if what I'm saying doesn't gel with your own experience, don't feel like you have to take me seriously. You know yourself and your process better than any outsider can. Just make sure you're being honest with yourself.

And good luck. I think that if we're strict and kind with ourselves, we writers can muddle through :o)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

"'Hail Mary,' prayed Lovejoy between her teeth, 'Mary, make me cocky and independent.'"

A few things today.

First, I and mine got through the hurricane unscathed, but the news reports make it clear that we were lucky. My heart goes out to everyone devastated by this storm. Especially our neighbors to the north in Vermont! The Big Picture at The Boston Globe put together a great slideshow of photos from Hurricane Irene -- check it out.

Second, a FAQ: Are you on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.? No. This blog is my only online presence; I am not on any other social media sites.

Third, my title today is a favorite line from An Episode of Sparrows, by Rumer Godden, which I just read. I've talked about Godden before on the blog and want to recommend a few of her books again, in addition to AEoS: A Candle for St. Jude; China Court; Greengage Summer; and In This House of Brede. (If you're planning to read your first Godden, maybe don't choose that last one first -- it's very long, takes place in an abbey, and practically nothing happens. I wouldn't want you to give up on Godden altogether if that turned out not to be your thing. Frankly, An Episode of Sparrows also might not be the best first choice; hardly anything happens in that one either.) Godden just has the most distinctive and beautiful voice, and she's fabulous with relationships, artists, children, dialogue. She opens up my understanding of the way a book can sound, and until she does, I don't even realize it's closed.

Fourth, I watched, and greatly admired, the movie Winter's Bone. Loved these characters and this darkness! And it was written, produced, directed by women (Debra Granik was the director) -- SO refreshing to see more women breaking into the movie industry in positions of power. I hope that keeps happening.

Fifth, in some recent research, I stumbled upon an obnoxious quote, but couldn't find any information about who to attribute the offensiveness to. Here's the quote: "Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe and not make messes in the house." I poked around online... and found website after website attributing this quote to Robert Heinlein.

Which is when I began to sigh to myself. Robert Heinlein is a famous science fiction writer. The person who said the quote is clearly a bit of an asshole. How much do you want to bet that this quote, attributed to Robert Heinlein, was actually spoken or written by one of his characters, not Heinlein himself? There's a difference! While it would be an enormous waste of anyone's energy to try to fix all the wrongness on the internet, I do wish people would be more clear with their attributions. Did J.K. Rowling say, "How could they have believed I would not rise again? They, who knew the steps I took, long ago, to guard myself against mortal death? They, who had seen proofs of the immensity of my power in the times when I was mightier than any wizard living?" Of course not (even if it might work as a metaphor for her success ^_^). J.K. Rowling doesn't go around saying weird things like that; that was Voldemort (In Goblet of Fire, Chapter 33). I'm sure there are plenty of things my own characters have said, thinks my main character has thunk, or concepts presented in the voice of my narrator, that I wouldn't want attributed to me, as if I'd taken that position on things in real life. Part of writing a worthwhile book is filling it with people who say good things and people who say bad things, good thoughts and bad thoughts and complicated thoughts that shift and change and are owned by characters. It's fiction!

So anyway. To set the record straight, the guy who said the obnoxious thing about mathematics is apparently (though I haven't read the book yet) the character Lazarus Long, in Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein. (For all I know, Lazarus Long is otherwise delightful. But my heart rises up in defense of a rather large proportion of people who are deeply human despite not being able to cope with mathemetics.)

And that's all for today. :o)