favorite books, revisited

Let’s talk about formative influences. I can natter about books all day.

The Discworld series of course is a given. I’ve mentioned before that Carpe Jugulum was the first proper Disc book I read, back in ninth grade along with Good Omens (another big one – I met my best friend through Good Omens), and Carpe Jugulum has a special place in my heart. Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats is a pretty minor character in the sprawling Discworld canon, but he and Agnes Nitt were the perfect protagonists for ninth grade me to meet. I can’t really pick just one Disc book as a favorite, though. Unseen Academicals might be about football (or soccer to us Americans), but it’s also about rejecting the status quo, and about overcoming prejudice, and a lot of other things. AndNight Watch, the darkest Disc book but honest and painful and still hopeful for the future; and Reaper Man which taught Death how to be something like human; and Monstrous Regiment, and Going Postal, and The Truth, and, and, and.

The Animorphs and Guardians of Ga’Hoole series were pretty much the basis for my childhood, which explains a lot about me if I think about it; morally ambiguous alien centaurs and a kingdom of talking owls gave me a definitive taste for big character-driven plots in fantastic worlds.

Les Miserables is another huge one, and I’m not just talking word count. I first read the Denny abridged translation of Les Mis as a lark in fall 2011, after having seen the 25th anniversary concert recording (with a surprisingly apt Nick Jonas as Marius) and reading a webcomic about Javert and Commodore Norrington living down the hall from Goblin King Jareth and the Phantom of the Opera. (Yes, it’s on DeviantArt. Yes, I was in high school. Yes, the webcomic is still ongoing.)

The Denny translation is a good starter translation for them as are intimidated by the Brick, so named because even the abridged version is big enough to do serious damage if you hit someone with it. But the Denny translation is not The Best translation; Denny took a lot of liberties with the original text; I personally stand by Fahnestock and MacAfee, or Hapgood for some of the phrasing. Charles Wilbour’s English translation is the one F&A based theirs off, and it’s pretty solid, if slightly archaic; it came out the same year the original French was published, as far as I remember.

Yes, this is what I wrote my senior thesis on.

I have this big old Brick to thank for a lot of the things in my life. I made some really good friends through the online Les Mis fandom, and because of those friends I was introduced to the Silmarillion fandom and made other friends – my editor among them, actually. And the Brick is why I decided to major in French in the first place, and if I hadn’t majored in French, I probably wouldn’t have studied abroad in France – learning linguistic theory for the first time in a foreign language is fun – and I probably wouldn’t have read Huis Clos (aka No Exit) either. It’s kind of amazing to see how the dominoes line up.

Harry Potter and the Death of the Author

I promised I’d talk about Pottermore and touch on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so … here we go.

As someone who grew up with the Harry Potter books — in first grade one of our field trips was to see The Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters — I pretty much live and breathe this stuff. It’s not so much something that I actively seek out as something that I know like the back of my hand; it’s as familiar as a beloved stuffed animal, and the series grew along with us. You could probably call millennials the Harry Potter generation and we wouldn’t really protest that much.

Before the Pottermore site ever went live — I want to say this was around 2005 — a piece of fanfiction was written called The Shoebox Project. It centers on the Marauders, James Potter and Sirius Black and their little band, and it’s over two hundred thousand words. Now, say what you will about fanfiction, but even without having read it you’ve got to admit that 200k of anything is a great deal of time and energy to spend on something you’ll never get paid for. Having read it, I think the writing is pretty darn good, and it tells an engaging story. A pair of writers sat down and wrote this Project, and included drawings and photographs, and it was a labor of love.

The reason I was aware of the Shoebox Project — long before I ever felt the interest to read it — was because within that story, one of the plot points is that James Potter’s parents are murdered by Death Eaters.

J.K. Rowling went to the media to say that no, that was incorrect, James Potter’s parents died of old age.

… Which is … great, I guess, except that none of the actual Harry Potter books that were out at that point mentioned the fact that Harry’s grandparents died of old age.

And I remember being ten or so, watching the Today show before heading to school, hearing about JK Rowling saying, very seriously, that James Potter’s parents died of old age and it was incorrect for these fans to write a story in which they didn’t survive to old age.

Ever heard of a concept called “Death of the Author”? It means that once you’ve written something and published it, as long as people are drawing their conclusions from the text, they can draw whatever conclusions they want. You, the author, cannot force them to come to a particular conclusion, nor can you prohibit them from coming to a conclusion you do not like. What’s in the published work is all there is. If you want to write a sequel, then write a sequel; but whatever you write, once you’ve released it into the wild, you can’t control what other people think about it.

It’s the old English Major Maxim: As long as you can prove it with textual citations, you can argue for it.

So JKR, the author, had this idea about James Potter’s parents. She didn’t write it in the books. The fans aren’t mind readers. How could they know? How could she expect them to know? And how could she get mad at them for coming up with a perfectly logical idea with regards to what she had already written?

That incident in ’05 (or ’04, or ’06; I’m hazy on the dates) is JKR saying “Death of the Author doesn’t apply to me.”

Pottermore is that incident magnified, and prettified on a website.

And yeah, it’s neat to be able to Sort yourself into a Hogwarts house (Hufflepuff forever) and see what the website thinks your Patronus should be (polecat?), and it’s neat to have a message board for other fans.

But she’s continually coming out with new content about books that were published … over a decade ago. And treating it like it’s just as canon as the published books.

Sorry, lady, but at this point those are just fancy headcanons, as the fans call them. Ideas that are nice to think about, but that can’t be read as law within the fictional universe, because they only exist in your head. If you want us to think a certain thing about this character, then publish a short story or a sequel or a separate series. Don’t dump snippets on a nice website and then get your nose out of joint when people ignore it.

— which leads into the next subject, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Flogging the Dead Horse.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Maybe Quit While You’re Ahead.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the You Actually Wrote A Blue-Haired Daughter of Bellatrix Lestrange And Voldemort? Did You Take A Minute to Maybe Think About This First?

Sometimes — and I would count having your own theme park as one of those times — it’s okay to step back and let a series be finished.

the Janus man

I’ve nattered about it in other circles, so I might as well do it here. Be ye warned: this post is a long one.

As a consumer of media, I tend to go through cycles of intense obsession that die down to more reasonable levels after a few months (or years), but that can flare up again at any time with only the slightest provocation. To millennials, that much-bemoaned demographic to which I belong, it’s pretty par for the course. To the iGeneration, those people born after the year 2000, who are in high school or about to enter college (!!!), it’s also very much the norm. To people older than Gen Y, that’s … weird. For some reason.

Whatever. The original Trekkies pretty much laid the groundwork for fandom as it is today, y’all don’t get to sneer at us.

The point that I’m meandering towards, is that the level of obsession in the media I consume is directly correlated to the characters in that media. Whether it’s a book or a tv series or a movie, or heck, a period of history, it’s the people involved that I’m interested in, not necessarily the events.

Which is funny, because I tend to stay within certain genres and certain trappings. I’m not a horror or mystery fan. Shoot-‘em-up action films don’t do much for me. Mil scifi and hard scifi can be pretty interesting (see: Starship Troopers and The Martian), but I usually stick to space opera, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. I come for the setting, but I stay for the characters.

I stay for the authors, too. If someone writes one book I enjoy, I’m a lot more likely to read the rest of the backlog, even if it’s part of a different series or universe. That’s how I got into the Discworld: via Good Omens. And Good Omens itself I read because of Gaiman’s Coraline. Never underestimate the transitive power of a well-liked book.

It’s how I got into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If JKR is good at anything, she’s good at capitalizing on her backlist to sell the frontlist.

Which – you know, good for her. The woman’s got her own theme park. If I can be a tenth as successful as she is, I’ll have made it big.

(The Cursed Child is, uh, a different matter, but that and Pottermore are a different post altogether. Let’s table that for tomorrow.)

Anyway! Fantastic Beasts. Or more accurately, the characters of Fantastic Beasts.

The first time I saw it, I was reasonably pleased with the goings-on of the plot and the characters, up until a crucial reveal scene in the last quarter of the film. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the film, maybe skip the rest of this post altogether, because it’s a big freaking spoiler.

The casting of Grindelwald was a mistake, in my personal opinion. Mr. Depp may be a talented actor, and I may have enjoyed previous films that he was in – Pirates of the Caribbean sparked a huge interest in the Golden Age of Piracy for me in middle school – but if you’re going to have a film with a central plot focusing on domestic violence, maybe don’t cast an actor who’s been charged with beating his (now ex-)wife.

Seems kind of tasteless.

That’s the casting, though. Even if they’d cast Jamie Campbell Bower (you know, the actor who played Young Grindelwald in the HP movies), the decision to make Creepy Antagonist Percival Graves actually an international terrorist is … well … I’d still chafe at the bit, I think.

It’s not that the movie isn’t internally consistent. On the rewatch, there are plenty of clues to indicate that the man isn’t just a fashionable-and-imposing-yet-creepy dude. The slight fixation on Dumbledore during the interrogation scene is the biggest indicator that he’s actually Grindelwald. The Deathly Hallows bit, as well, works as an alarm bell for them fans that know, that all is not as it should be. But … well …

I mean, the alley scenes with poor Credence do a pretty good job of that, too. There was enough emotional manipulation in those short scenes to choke a horse. And you don’t have to be an international magical terrorist to be a manipulative creep. Anyone can be a creep! Equal opportunity creepiness!

And he didn’t have to be the literal terrorist to agree with the terrorist’s ideas. That’s the point, isn’t it? Not everyone is Magical Hitler, but he didn’t get so much power without supporters. It would have been concerning enough, and it would have remained consistent with the rest of the story (except for that pesky Dumbledore question), if Percival Graves had still been Percival Graves at the end of the movie. I get that “terrorist infiltrates government by stealing a man’s face” is one hell of a plot twist, and hey, stealing faces is a sufficiently sinister magical thing to do, so hey, why not. It’s a good “gotcha!” moment. But wouldn’t it make more of an impact to say “hey, this trusted lieutenant dedicated his life to protecting people but now he agrees with the magical terrorist”?

Especially when – and this is the particularly sticky issue – right before the reveal, he actually poses a pretty good question.

“Who does this law protect? Us, or them?”

The question was already answered two seconds ago, but the question forces us to think about it. The no-majs who were killed during the Obscurus’ rampage, they sure weren’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy. Credence, who was executed by wizarding firing squad rather than be rehabilitated, he sure wasn’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy.

And it also confronts the fact that MACUSA was too blinded by pride to acknowledge that there was even a possibility of Obscurials existing anymore. They could not realize that an Obscurial was tortured into existence right down the street from their headquarters. Essentially, the government condemned a young man to die.

That law protected no one.

Graves was morally gross, but the dude had a point.

And the movie confronted us with that uncomfortable truth, right up until – whoops, actually he’s Grindelwald so we don’t have to weight his words at all. Everything that spews out of his mouth is a lie. We can dismiss the uncomfortable truth, because it came from the lips of a mass murderer.

Oh well.

The character of Graves – or GrindelGraves – was a ruthless man who would do whatever slimy thing it took to achieve his ends, but who commanded the respect and loyalty of one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie, Tina Goldstein. Her shock and sorrow when he sentences her to death is visceral, and not just because she’s about to die! There’s some legitimate betrayal going on there! What kind of man is he, that can inspire that level of dedication, and then turn around and condemn her to death?

Mmmm, he’s a terrorist. Well, there went all that moral complexity, right out the window.

On the plus side, the switcheroo means that distinguished-older-gentleman-with-the-rakish-clothes Colin Farrell is now officially a mystery. We don’t know who the real Percival Graves is! Is he an accomplice? Is he a captive? Is he dead? Until the next installment (and JKR is planning 6 more movies as far as I last heard), we have no idea. He’s Schroedinger’s character. And fandom has taken that blank slate and run with it.

I’m really hoping he isn’t dead. If we’ve introduced the face-stealing plot and we can’t retcon it, by God, let’s explore it to its full potential.

this went on a weird tangent but bear with me

There’s just something about wearing a button-down and a vest and oxford shoes that … makes me smile. I really like wearing dresses too, and there’s something about a fully made up face that’s nice (without going into the politics of it all), and I do like wearing heels sometimes. The traditional trappings of femininity aren’t bad things. They aren’t the end-all be-all, but they’re not eeevil. I just … also love the styles that fall into the “dapper” category. I like looking at other people wearing that style, and I like dressing in that style. I don’t do it as often as I could, though, considering how many button-down shirts I own – or rather, I don’t do it to that extent. Usually I go for more of a business-casual route with the rolled-up sleeves rather than the full Monty. Which is weird, when I think about it. It’s not like the full Monty of button-downs and vests and oxford shoes are exactly inappropriate office attire.

I mean, ideally we’d be able to walk around like fluffy Renaissance shirts and dresses with trumpet sleeves down to the knees were normal office attire, right up there with glowing neon buttons on shirts and other fun things out of a Star Wars film, but that’s neither here nor there. Maybe in another century.

Though by then things like button-downs and oxfords will probably be seen as an archaic costume to dress up in, like Renaissance festivals now. Now imagine a twenty-second century “office party”-themed thing. Who knows what hilarious anachronisms there will be.

I guess flip-flopping between different styles is kind of like food. I really enjoy both sushi and pasta, but I’m more likely to go for pasta simply because it’s A) easier to find B) generally less expensive and C) I have to be in a Sushi Mood, whereas pasta is eternal.

Flip-flopping between different styles isn’t the weird thing, whether it’s clothing fashion or food or music genres or anything else. Hell, religion and lifestyle enter into it, too. Stereotypes exist because humans like assigning people to categories, and those categories allow our brains to take short-cuts instead of second guessing everything in our environment. But no one fits neatly into a template. It’s easy to reduce someone you don’t like to cardboard cut-out status, and it’s easy to write characters that are cardboard cut-outs, but the best characters are like humans – all humans – in that the first three things you notice about a person don’t necessarily define the rest of the person.

But appearance does matter, however much we might want to deny it. Everyone presents an image to the world, whether they do it consciously or not. And we like to say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but we still do it, because some of the information that first impression presents is important.

Sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain says “I don’t like this person,” and you table it for later, and it turns out to be right. Sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain doesn’t say “I don’t like this person” until after they’ve provided reasons for you not to like them. Sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain waits until years after the person’s provided reasons not to like them, to realize what went wrong. And sometimes the little bug in the back of your brain says “I don’t like this person,” but they never give you an actual reason to dislike them, so you have to stuff that little bug back in its box.

But you never know what it’ll turn out to be.

make the best of it

“Glitter and Be Gay” sounds like something out of a pride parade, doesn’t it. Bahaha. It’s actually from the operetta Candide, and it’s the song in which young waif Cunegonde decides to stop moping around about her situation and start taking advantage of it. The message or “plot” of the song is funny on its own, but the song is really technically difficult – if you take a listen, the notes jump around a lot, and very quickly, and get progressively higher and higher, some of them notes that only dogs can hear properly. Then on top of that, while the singer could just stand there and deliver a technical performance, the blocking of the scene generally requires a lot of jumping around and playing with costume jewelry.

I don’t usually think of acting in a musical as a strenuous workout, but seeing Kristen Chenoweth perform this song, I can definitely believe it.

What’s interesting to me about this song is that Cunegonde has been treated horribly by the narrative (thanks, Voltaire), so it isn’t as though the moping at the beginning of the song isn’t justified. I mean, if your family had been slaughtered in front of you, and you had been rock-paper-scissor divvied between a corrupt member of the Church and an old merchant, and that was only the start of your troubles … well. That kind of tragedy is pretty exhausting. But underlying this is a sort of meta idea that while it makes sense to feel sorry for yourself, it’s also boring to watch other people wallow in misery – and it doesn’t do anything for the plot, either. At some point the character’s gotta pick herself up and find a way to keep going, otherwise she’s a cardboard cut-out.

And while in the original novella, Cunegonde pretty much was a cardboard cut-out, the operetta’s got some dissenting opinions on that.

So, having endured so much already, Cunegonde decides to not only endure her current situation but to take as much advantage of it as she can. She redefines her character from “broken victim” status to “survivor,” and when she does finally reunite with Candide, she’s got the willpower and resilience to escape with him as an active participant in the plan.

(A cynic might ask, “well, if her situation is so horrible, why doesn’t she try to leave sooner?” But that discussion is a subject for a different post.)

(And if you’re thinking, “jeez, who reads this much into a musical number,” all I can say is I was an English minor for a reason.)

Anyway, if you’ve never read the book Candide, you’re not missing out on that much. The operetta sensationalizes the story and makes it a lot more fun for consumers, but it gets the main point across, too, and the plot points are easier to remember when they’re attached to snazzy musical numbers. I wouldn’t call it “pandering” so much as “making it more accessible.”

Besides, what book hasn’t been vastly improved by the inclusion of snazzy musical numbers.

creature of habit, pt 2

I don’t like making the effort, but I like the results of making the effort.

The trick is in convincing yourself to turn the effort into a habit. The first time I wake up at 5 am, I feel like a zombie, and it takes me a solid twenty minutes to get out of bed, and even then I’m grouchy until the first cup of coffee. The first time I go running, it’s not exactly a run as it is short bursts of jogging followed by long intervals of wheezing and cussing under my breath. And eating healthy means consciously substituting those Oreos for an apple, or sugar-free gum.

It’s really easy to fall back into the old habits. I don’t have a sweet tooth, I have a sweet tusk. And while I certainly enjoy dancing and acting and swimming and sometimes even exercise, usually I’m the immovable object rather than the unstoppable force – which also applies to sleep. Dang, I love sleeping in.

So making a new habit is tricky, sometimes. You sort of have to bribe yourself to do it. For me, dragging myself out of bed at 5:30 (baby steps) to wheeze on down the road wasn’t fun or easy the first time, but I did see a rabbit in someone’s front yard, and it’s pretty cool to see the sunrise. So the next time, it was a bit easier. And this morning I saw a deer, which is a definite upgrade from rabbits.

It’s the same thing with books. I like writing, but I don’t like shutting myself away from other people, even if I need that solitude in order to write. But it’s pretty darn awesome to hold Book Two in my hands and say, “I made this.”

And a year down the line, with a bigger library of books written, and lungs that will actually handle over thirty solid minutes’ worth of running? That’s something to get excited about.

I mean, it’s still really uncomfortable for now, but progress isn’t supposed to be comfortable. And once it turns into a proper habit, then making the effort will stop being something to complain about – and the results will only get better from there.

classics

For those who haven’t seen it, the My Cousin Oskaar video is an annual classic when it comes to Daylight Savings Time. I’m a few days late, I know, but it’s one of those videos that just never gets old. Please go watch it and then cackle over Stallone with me.

Speaking of classics …

It’s funny to me that in high school I enjoyed the language of Shakespeare but very much hated the language of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote in much the same linguistic era – the linguistic in/formal thee vs you dynamic is one of the things I remember – and the descriptions were florid, and the emotions everyone had were dramatic, and it was a big thinky piece about Sin and Blame and Revenge, and yeah, they made a modern film based off it with Emma Stone so apparently it’s still relevant today. Cool. Neato. If it were rewritten today using modern language, I might like it very much, because the themes are interesting and the characters are interestingly flawed (except for Hester, who … didn’t … do anything wrong? At all? if I remember correctly. She just slept with the wrong man). But the language is so excessive that it interfered with the reading experience for me. I haven’t read it in years but I remember it felt like wading through hip-deep mud just to get to the dang plot. And given that a lot of my classmates reacted the same way, I’m led to believe that if the novel hadn’t been branded as a classic, it would probably fall to the wayside.

Not so with stories like The Crucible. I read The Crucible in the same class where I read The Scarlet Letter, and while I didn’t like the first act at the time because I felt the plot was moving too slowly (that turned out to be a Bored Teenager lens; I think the first act is pretty interesting now), the rest of the play practically reached out and grabbed me. Abigail was one of the most compelling antagonists I’d come across, and the messy complicated nature of John Proctor was something I could sink my teeth into. I remember picking one of Abigail’s monologues to do an audition for the high school play that next year. The language is just archaic enough to remind you that the play took place in the 1690s, but it’s fluid enough to still appeal to a modern audience (and, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be translated heavily like Shakespeare sometimes is).

Whereas The Scarlet Letter was written in the 1850s and … hmmmm … doesn’t really have much of an excuse? Especially when you take other books written in that same time frame like Les Misérables (published 1863) – which, while astoundingly verbose, still managed to be compelling and not clogged up with archaic language.

Honestly, sometimes I think the board of education sits down and determines the reading requirements based on what makes you sound snobby and pretentious, rather than what’s actually enjoyable to read. And before you start bemoaning the Uncultured Youth for their Potter and Tolkien, maybe take a hot second and think about whether you’d rather force someone to read something practically illegible (and enforce reading as a chore), or have them read something fun and thought-provoking (and encourage reading as a hobby).

Oh, and Tolkien’s been a little more of a cultural influence in the past fifty years or so than Hawthorne has, I’ll bet. Take that, elitists.

creature of habit

I have a callus on the side of my right middle finger. I first got this callus when I was seven or so, I want to say, because that’s when I first started writing by hand extensively. Wooden pencils (or ‘analog’ as I like to call them) give you that callus, and make it a lot thicker than a plastic mechanical pencil or pen will. After I started doing more of my writing on a computer — I want to say it was somewhere in high school that I moved from composition notebooks to a computer permanently — the callus became less pronounced. It’s still there, but these days the handwriting I do is confined to jotting down notes on a Post-It or writing in my little black book. And it’s usually no longer than an hour’s worth of handwriting at a time.

It’s the nature of the beast that writing on a computer is faster than longhand. Sometimes my thoughts go slower than my pen, but sometimes the only thing that can catch up to how fast the ideas come is the keyboard. Thank goodness for all those “Type to Learn” classes they forced us to take in elementary school. (They’re still doing those, right? Hunt and peck is fun but only when you’re not trying to write over 3k at a time. Also, does seeing elementary school kids with tablets and smartboards(tm) make anyone else feel old? No? Just me? Darn.) In any case, while some people prefer the sensory feeling of writing longhand, I prefer the expediency of a keyboard to record my ideas and write my drafts. In the same vein, I prefer using my laptop to writing on my smartphone.

The actual weird thing, though, is that which application I use also seems to make a difference as to my productivity level. I used to do all my typing on Word. Approximately one zillion of all the embarrassing body-swap and clairvoyant and historically inaccurate pirate stories that I wrote on my parents’ clunky old desktop in middle school were written using Word. And every last essay I ever wrote for high school and college was using the Word app. So I should still be okay with using Word for writing my manuscript drafts, right?

Nope. I can’t stand it now. For some reason, Word just isn’t comfortable for me anymore, like too many hours holding an analog pencil.

I’ve been using Scrivener for the last year and a half. I’m sure there are plenty of other writing apps that give you just as many cool doodads (like compiling the draft to pdf/epub, or viewing multiple sections of the same document at the same time), but I’m perfectly content with Scrivener. It does all of the things I need it to do, and after the first hour playing around in the tutorials, it’s fairly intuitive as to usage. But to be completely honest, I’m sticking with Scrivener because A) if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and B) I just seem to write better on Scrivener than on Word, and I’d probably feel the same with any of those other newfangled apps.

It’s the same sort of thing with WordPress. I can type my drafts in the WordPress site. The site offers that ability. But I’d rather transcribe an already written post into the WordPress site, than compose it for the first time in WordPress. I’d so much rather type up the blog post in an email app, save it as a draft, and then copy/paste or retype into WordPress. More effort? Yeah, but not longer than five minutes’ worth, and retyping gives me a chance to edit, anyway.

Call it an idiosyncrasy if you will. But if you ask around enough, you’ll find that everyone who writes has some kind of weird habit. I think I’ll take copy/paste and retyping over only being able to drink Mountain Dew any day.