Xhorsted hedjog go splattttt

sleepy hedgehog

There have been some good moments at Loncon today, I do admit, even if the venue is vast and exhausting to navigate.

Prearranged meetups worked (even if one of them involved an earlier start to the day than I had initially planned), plus also serendipitous encounters with others and general delightful conversations.

Hard to tell how panel I was on worked - it was the one that I was kind of WTF as to why I was on it in the first place, except on reflection could see why they might have thought me a fit for it, and I think I was able to make some not uncogent remarks, while finding myself pretty much singing from the same hymnsheet as the other panel members.

I did manage to get to another panel earlier on - '"Your 'realistic' fantasy is a washed out colourless emptiness compared to the Rabelaisian reality." Discuss.' - though I wish among the historians ancient and medieval there had been someone to speak to how crap novels can be at representing more recent bits of the past (wot, me scathingly bitter about pseudo-Victoriana? could that be so?) Also, the focus tended to be on women (though also touching on other issues of status, hierarchy, slavery, religion, legal codes, etc) and I never got to ask the question I wanted to ask about how thinking in a more nuanced way about the historical construction of masculinity might suggest that the grimdark depiction of men as sociopathic thugs is no more accurate than the denial of agency to women on the grounds of some narrow notion of what constitutes 'historical accuracy'.

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The potency of fictive tropes?

bonking hedgehogs

Further to yesterday's post, someone commented elsewhere re 'threesome' guy getting his ideas from porn.

What is perhaps more surprising is the apparent influence of romcom tropes on male courtship behaviour.

Though this was perhaps already visible in the 'but whyyyyyy can't I make adorable spontaneous approaches to total strangers?' plaints...

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'Ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act'


Interesting discussion over bizarre chronology and creepy attitudes in Josephine Tey with particular reference to The Franchise Affair made me think of another thing I've noticed in Tey.

Which is a very Kiplingesque 'female of the species' thing about women who are prepared to take vengeance against someone who has injured, or threatens, not themselves but their female beloved object.

I suppose these are spoilers if you haven't read the booksCollapse )

I've just been checking Alison Oram's 'Her Husband Was A Woman' and as far as I can see, the several cases she mentions as being reported in the press of murder as involving 'perverse passions' between women would have been just a bit later than the publication of these works by Tey (which do also bear signs of having been written before World War II). Curious. It's going a step further on from Ngaio Marsh's pathological spinsters.

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A house is not a home

Fenton House

I think really, that if you are producing a listicle of the 25 Greatest Homes in Literature, you might focus on, you know, homes that are homely rather than unheimlich.

Manderley is lovely, sure, but we don't feel that anywhere that has Mrs Danvers lurking malevolently around is really cosy. And as for Castle Dracula, Kafka's Castle, Wuthering Heights, Hill House...

I am now trying to think of homes in literature that are homes that one might like to live in, rather than uber-creepy gothic piles with wailing ghosts, vampires, housekeepers, mysterious invalids, etc etc.

While I wouldn't care for Toad Hall, no matter how much Mr Toad himself likes to hymn its praises, I think Ratty or Moley's homes sound lovely.

While they may occasionally whinge about it (and I'm not sure how long one could stand Marmee spreading moral lessons and keeping down her temper) the March house always sounded nice to me when reading as a child.

Possibly the cosy house is a trope belonging to children's literature however, and when we grow up, perhaps houses are places where uncosy things happen even in comfortable drawing rooms, or at least, this is necessary for stories to happen. Sort of like the trope of meals that are for people to quarrel or drop dead of poison at.

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Wednesday (re)reading


What I (re)read

Because revisiting stuff I have not read for (probably) well over a decade or even two is almost but not quite like new reading!

I've inhaled J D Robb's [---] In Death series from Naked to Rapture (1995-1996) (because what happens when you end up having to restack books is things coming to light and turning into the front of the pile rather than the back). It's quite odd going back to the beginning of a long series like this to what it was like at the start, and the backstories that are still to come and the characters who haven't yet emerged and so on. I daresay some people actually read these for the Dallas/Roarke extremely-oft stated sexual tension/activity, but for me I have to say that these obligatory episodes are the equivalent of the bit in Marx Bros movies where Chico tickles the ivories or Harpo twangs the strings and Groucho suggests this is a good time to nip out to the lobby for a smoke. Otherwise they're holding up pretty well as candyfloss reading though I am still surprised by the instances where Dallas overlooks the character who is parading round with the 'look at me I'm way dodgy' teeshirt until the 11th hour.

E M Delafield. Tension (1921) so lives up to its name and fulfills the meta in the text about stories that don't have Dramatic Events but depend on Atmosphere. Mark Easter is totally one of EMD's spineless, or at least, emotionally obtuse and ultimately fairly useless, charming blokes. Okay, his children are monsters, but I think one could make a case (not that I'm sure EMD actually does) that a) their mother is a dipsomaniac currently in an institution b) even before her incarceration, domestic life appears to have been pretty unstable c) their father seems totally emotionally disengaged and leaves them pretty much to the servant, and that they are acting out in a fairly traumatic situation. NB this is also a father who married his wife largely out of pity and because they both 'rather wanted kiddies'. Also, we note that his affairs as land-agent are sufficiently in a mess that they really need Pauline Marchrose working above and beyond her daytime job to help him out. This is the one that also has a woman who thinks of herself as Living For Others and the entire rest of the cast (except for Easter's infants) wears a hunted expression.

Mrs Harter (1924) has a rather similar plot - dropping a new person of somewhat equivocal antecedents into a small community - and also has the 'cynicism concealing the sensitive heart' male figure, this time as narrator. His wife Claire is not quite such a monster as Lady Rossiter in Tension but a similar type - she married Miles in a fit of dramatic self-sacrifice when he was injured in a flying accident (which sort of inverts Pauline Marchrose's backstory of exiting from her engagement when her fiance - about whom she was already Having Qualms - was injured in a hunting accident). The ending, however, invokes actual melodramatic incident rather than the pressure of unspoken/whispered atmospherics.

The Way Things Are (1927) - or, Not Quite Such A Downer as Consequences or Thank Heaven Fasting but not very cheery, even if a) her husband is Not All That Bad (sort of Robert in Provincial Lady without so much of the comedy) and b) we are not sure that Duke would wear all that well over the long term. I would like to think that this deep if tragic emotional experience will make her an even better writer of short stories and win her greater critical acclaim. But she thinks of her children more than this, when taking her decision.

On the Go

Ceremony in Death (1997). Also, still ploughing through An Englishwomen's Love Letters and wondering at the extent to which our lovers, who are pretty much neighbours, don't seem to be meeting much. It's not as though he's Serving The Empire, he's just down the road.

Up Next

Probably Vengeance in Death and another Delafield, not sure at the moment which. Incidentally quite a lot of her works are now available at 77p the pop for Kindle, put out by a weird publishing firm (Timeless Wisdom Collection) which mostly seems to publish out-of-print (and probably well past its sell-by date) Inspirational Works. Go figure.

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That is, the status of being 'a classic', thought brought to you by this piece on The Guardian blog:
Classics question: when does a novel gain this status? Sitting on this privileged shelf in a bookshop confers a lot of kudos, but close examination leaves you wondering why

There's also a good deal of inconsistency between bookshops. I'm not sure that the issue of really solvable by the 'put it all in alphabetical order' recommendation, because one doesn't necessarily want to trawl through absolutely everything (surely the point of having an sff section is so that one doesn't have to skim along shelf after shelf of litfic in search of one's fix, ditto mysteries).

In - I think - Simon Brett's After Henry (novelisation of a 1980s radio series), there is a secondhand bookseller who has little handwritten labels on the shelves saying things like 'Big fat family sagas that are really quite good'.

However, this is a degree of curation probably rather too far for the average bookshop, or even secondhand/charity bookshop.



Maier challenges our ideas of how a person, an artist, and, especially, a woman should be. She didn’t try to use her work to accumulate cultural or economic capital. She was poor but uninterested in money.

Men make documentary about her... 'The filmmakers give Maier’s purposeful obscurity and fiercely guarded solitude a tragic cast'. You don't say.

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Something on the side

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

Do my dr rdrz ever have that experience of ordering something in a restaurant less for the main whatever in the dish, but for the side it comes with?

This thought brought to you by lunch the other day, where a somewhat underwhelming piece of fish baked in a banana leaf (is the banana leaf meant to impart anything to the fish, or is it just the organic equivalent of wrapping something in foil or baking parchment? enquring minds etc) came with 'green beans sambal' which was really, really excellent and quite more-ish.

Also that time I had the sliced ox-tongue, which was a bit on the bland side, but it came with this really delicious lentil, parsley, crouton and either lemon or lime juice salad.

This made me think of other phenomena where what is supposed to be the central element is perhaps less alluring than its concomitants - o hi, snarky sidekick buddies! Or, wasn't the scenery in that movie great? (Will concede that there is probably a limit on how long scenery/cinematography/great set design will sustain a movie.)

Also about mystery novels where one is perhaps less engaged by the actual plot and whodunnit than the revelation e.g. of the way of life in the particular setting in which the crime occurs; or the ongoing soap-opera of the recurrent characters' lives; or the wise-cracking and badinage.

It is, of course, possible to make a meal entirely of sides, and I may have mentioned the Deconstructed or Post-Modernist Christmas Dinner which cuts out the borin' ol' turkey (which never realises when it has long since worn out any welcome it may have had) and goes straight to the chipolatas in bacon, stuffing, roast potatoes, bread sauce and whatever other veggies one counts as traditional (srsly, brussels sprouts are not obligatory if they turn you up).

Not sure this entirely works with novels, films, plays, etc. Sometimes you end up with incident in search of a unifying plot (ahem, Jasper Fforde, e.g in some of the Thursday Next sequels), or the introduction of elements to enable your cast to wisecrack, exchange badinage, etc. In films this is probably why we have Gratuituous Fight or Car-chase Scenes.

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Manic Dream Pixie Mum?

Marie of Roumania

Further to seeing [personal profile] antisoppist's post mentioning that book on the Garman siblings that I read a year or so ago and recycling one of my original thoughts about it - the way that even when the sisters became mothers as well as muses, inspirations, and love-objects they still retained that Manic Pixie style. Not a good look on mothers, really.

I've been trying to think of Manic DP mothers in fiction and not finding many, or maybe I'm just not looking in the right places. I suppose Nancy Mitford's The Bolter is pretty much a MDPG, well on into her grandmother years, but at least she had the sense to doorstep Fanny with her sensible sister before the first bolt of many, and as I recall (must check: useful literary ref, if so) is indicated to have ensured that motherhood was not on the agenda throughout her rich full life of marriage and other arrangements.

On this re-read of GB Stern's Another Part of the Forest, strikes me that her mother sounds a bit of an MPDG, and certainly I think Stern's issues with Manic Pixies of either gender resonate throughout her work (suspect her husband was a MPGBoy who wanted her to be Wendy to his Peter Pan: she is pretty scathing about that dynamic, including the fact that Wendy has to care of him but very tactfully because he 'hates being fussed over'). Although the protag of Debonair is pretty much an MPDG from inside, and doesn't really grow out of it, unlike similar characters in See-Saw (1914) and Twos and Threes (1917): in the latter character reflects on how tiring it is having to keep up being the Manic Pixie because that has become how the relationship just is.

I seem to recollect that the mother of Joan Eason, as delineated in Celia Robertson's Who Was Sophie?: The Two Lives of My Grandmother - Poet and Stranger (2008) sounds a bit like the breed - that kind of boho 'let's go off and live like gipsies' uprooting everybody in the family thing.

I think there is a significant difference between a mother who is capable of engendering spontaneous fun things within a generally ordered and secure existence, and the Manic Dream Pixie Mum.

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Perhaps not strictly teenage boys, but -

bonking hedgehogs

- Um, wasn't Cheri still in his teens? (According to Wikipedia, yes, he's 19 and Lea is 43 when they initiate their affair.)

Thoughts riffing off this article in yesterday's Observer about the older woman/younger man trope in literature.

(And how old is Hippolytus when Phaedra experiences 'Venus tout entiere a sa proie attachee'?)

But what struck me, thinking about this scenario, is how often the versions I have come across involve Forbidden Love in more than the age-gap - stepson (classically Phaedra, also a novel by the ponderous R C Hutchinson, actually entitled The Stepmother), son-in-law (Diana Tutton's Mamma) or impending son-in-law (Delafield's Late and Soon). Or, if not specifically within the forbidden degrees of matrimony, Best Friend's offspring (as in Cheri), which is also a bit creepy.

Was led to wonder if this was to do with the circumstances of women's lives and who they would be likely to meet and interact with, at least if Respectable Married Ladies (okay, Lea was in a rather different situation, but presumably most of her interactions with men were Business).

(I just mention Germaine Greer's controversial The Boy in this context.)

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Yes! there has been reading


Books finished

Finished Breakfast with the Nikolides, which improved on the essentialism of the opening passages by including several major, differentiated, Indian characters. However, not among my top Goddens, I think. (there is a creepy flashback about the parents which is the same sort of Oh No! as the famous GwtW scene).

Two Edmund Crispins, one of which - The Case of the Gilded Fly (1945) I really quite liked except the rather pulling-it-out-of-thin-air resolution (but one's modern dodgy things associated with S America would involve white powder rather than white slavery, so maybe this was more foreshadowed than it seemed?) and Love Lies Bleeding (1948), where the whole thing got rather tediously rococco; also, didn't like the setting & characters as much.

Neville Shute, Lonely Road (1932) - quite an early one of his, and really quite compulsively readable. Was sceptical from the start that the gun-running was A Communist Plot, though I was expecting Fascists (though, arguably, the villain is a bit creepily ubermenschy in his attitudes). However, killing off [spoiler] was I thought a cheap resolution/motivation move.


On the go

At last it came along - The Goblin Emperor arrived on Monday, and, o so good. I really like the psychological plausibility of Maia's goodness - it is not just A Given because he is The Chosen Rightwise Heir or of the Right Blood, he had eight years of childhood with a loving mother (who clearly also laid sound ethical foundations of character), and although his subsequent guardian was horrible and abusive, he was at least consistent in this rather than playing double-bind headgames. Plus, the having to work within the constraints of his position - how great is this? (away with your power fantasies.)


Up Next

Probably Americanah. NB I see that there is a film about to be released of Half of a Yellow Sun, and while we would probably pay good money just to see Chiwetel Ejiofor read the telephone directory, I am a bit 'um' about the movie being pitched as 'a love story'. Also as about 'four people' when there are 5 main vp characters in the book.

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Subversive male

Over the past year, I have had occasion to read a good deal more male-authored genre fiction than I normally do.

Quite apart from the books that are all about phallic objects, or have female characters whose middle name is Anima, even within this field I noted several narratives on those less-than-universal narrative themes, young-man's-coming-of-age and male-midlife-crisis. We feel that that these themes lack general interest to a broader spectrum of humanity.

However, I have been agreeably surprised to find that there are male authors (and by no means all of them of the younger generation) who can write plots that are not all about urgent phallic things or excruciating man-angst, and give us rounded and complex characters of all genders and sexual inclinations.

Given the tone of some debates I have come across on the internetz, I was startled but delighted to discover that there are gentleman authors (whom I assume to be probably white and cis) of genre fiction who are a good deal more subtle, a great deal more inclusive in their cast, and much better writers, than I had been led to believe by the attacks on genre authors outside this trad group, bewailing all these non-white non-males etc intruding upon those nice clean phallic spaceships full of manly men of sound Anglo-Saxon, possibly with a touch of Celtic, stock.

Who'd a thunk.

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There's no such thing as from scratch

Delphic sibyl

Further to my comments on a post by [personal profile] sara yesterday about the assumption that writers who deploy similar plots/tropes/configurations of characters are derivative of Some Other Writer or Work -

To be completely original one would have had to a) create language and b) develop the idea of telling a story all by one's lonesome. Short of doing what the Emperor Frederick II did and bring up children without any interaction with other human beings (they all died) to see what language they would speak, this is not really a feasible model.

When we talk of cooking something 'from scratch' we don't actually mean that e.g. we have developed agriculture or at the very least harvested seeds of wild wheats, milled the grain, mixed the flour with water, left the dough out for wild yeasts to start fermenting; or that we have hunted and slaughtered the animal, butchered it, etc etc. What we tend to mean is that we have started from the raw materials already in our cupboards, using the equipment in our kitchen, rather than obtaining readymade.

Even radical gastronomy on the Blumenthal/Feran model doesn't actually commence from a naive premise of let's throw all the ingredients up in the air and see what comes down - it proceeds from a knowledge of existing food science, develops &/or subverts this.

It really helps, rather than hinders, to have a knowledge of what has gone before - cf the recurrent criticism of litfic writers who venture into genre and reinvent the wheel, sometimes as an octagon.

I will also surmise that there are some narrative tropes that have become completely detached from the origin tale, and that there are people churning out Orphan Heroine/Brooding Male/Looming House romances who have never read either Jane Eyre or even Rebecca. If one of them thinks, wow, wouldn't it be cool if his Dark Secret was a mad wife in the attic, is that ripping off Bronte?

Oft, oft have I bemoaned the Failure To Engage With Existing Literature by historians. In this, as in so many fields, it is not actually about dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, it is a whole lot of people of more or less standard size making small but significant contributions or new developments as part of a chain, a collective and cumulative endeavour.

Unfortunately, of course, the narrative trope of Amazing Game-Changing Original Discovery persists, it's as hard to kill as the Angel in the House

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What you learn at breakfast


Conversation with partner this morning over coffee:

He remarked that that picture of the 1607 Bristol Channel Floods, which is supposed to be a contemporary depiction of the devastation, is in fact heavily based on, or at least deploying iconographic conventions originating with, earlier works depicting the 1421 St Elizabeth Flood in the Dordrecht area of South Holland, such as the floating baby in cradle, church steeple sticking up from the flood waters, etc.

We then established that this was what he uncovered when perusing an article in the most recent issue of Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Judith Pollman, 'Of Living Legends and Authentic Tales: How to get remembered in Early Modern Europe', which includes discussion of the longer tradition of local tales about descent from the floating baby miraculously saved from the flood (in fact there turns out to be a 2009 Dutch movie in which this story features in the context of the great floods of 1953, because you can't keep a good archetype down).

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Ursula nails it

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

I commented once (at least) that there are certain sf tropes that literary types are allowed to do, and it's quite okay to be dystopic or apocalyptic, providing you at no point introduce a spaceship or a talking squid. Plus, the mood should be, on the whole, grim.

(Naomi Mitchison of course completely ignored any such strictures and had spaceships and aliens - though I don't think any of the latter were squidiform - in Memoirs of a Spacewoman, and in Solution Three something apocalyptic or nearly so has happened, and civilisation is being carefully and caringly rebuilt, rather than a brutal Hobbesian state of nature pertaining. But she was pretty much sui generis.)

Ursula Le Guin takes a very large codfish to the dystopia trope:

Dystopia is by its nature a dreary, inhospitable country. To its early explorers it held all the excitement of discovery, and that made their descriptions fresh and powerful – EM Forster's "The Machine Stops", Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. But for the last 30 years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction. Everybody goes there and writes a book about it. And the books tend to be alike, because the terrain is limited and its nature is monotonous.

She nails the repetitious setup of what dystopia looks like:

human hives, controlled by government and supporting a regimented, sheltered, safe, highly unnatural, often luxurious, "utopian" lifestyle. Those inside the enclaves consider those living outside them to be primitive, lawless and dangerous, which they are, though they also often hold the promise of freedom. So Dystopia has a hero: an insider who goes outside.

Oh dear yes.

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Dating for detectives

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

Surely there are easier ways for Golden Age detectives to find a life-partner than falling in love with a suspect? (On the highest setting for Wimsey, who first spots Harriet in the dock charged with murder; but also Alleyn, Nigel Strangeways. The lowest setting is Campion/Amanda - he meets her in the course of an investigation, in fact, 2 investigations, but in neither is she under suspicion.)

Poirot and Miss Marple are exempt from the softer passions (Hastings will do all the falling in love with potentially dodgy ladies required).

Possibly they do not have time for socialising outside their crime-fighting careers, but at least in the case of Lord P, mothers are throwing their eligible daughters at him.

In the case of the hardboiled noir 'tec, however, the chance is high that a) she did in fact do it and b) she will be dead by the end of the book anyway.

Does this apply to lady sleuths? I have a feeling that there was a point where it was more or less obligatory for Our Intrepid Heroine to shag some bloke who turned out, ooops, to be the murderer (as I recall this happened in one of Kinsey Milhone's early cases, to Lauren Henderson's Sam Jones, and possibly even VI Warshawski and Sharon McCone may have succumbed to the blandishments - and wasn't there some instance of guy who turned out to be the murderer putting the moves on Barbara Havers, although, while wavering, I don't think she actually fell). But not usually to end up in an ongoing relationship.

Brought to you by just having read Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death, in which the evidence seems to be stacking up against Georgina while Nigel S is becoming increasingly attracted to her. Another interesting facet is that the women in question are not notable simply for the pathos of being caught in a terrible trap, even if only Georgina has actual form for shooting someone who went berserk during one of her expeditions.

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Not universally generalisable, but


Thinking (as one does) about dystopias -

- and, okay, there is also the 'smother them with creepy niceness the better to absorb them' version -

- but do not a lot of dystopias posit a very binary society, i.e. you have the Haves (or even the Have-It-Alls) and the Have-Nots or (or even the Have Absolutely Nothings)?

I.e. there is yawning chasm that is impossible to cross between the Ins and the Outs.

There is no middling sort and no possibility of making some slight improvement in one's circumstances should one be in the Out-Group, except possibly by resort to crime.

(Though this model is also applicable to fantasies, no? see earlier complaints about societies within which there is no role for women beyond Princess/Duchess, downtrodden household drudge, or busty barmaid/prostitute.)

I thought of Jerry White's book on the Worst Street in London (not 100 miles from where I reside, and probably now massively gentrified) and how even there there was a good end and a worse end. The only work young women from the Bad End could get was the rougher sort of domestic labour - until a mattress factory opened up, and while that was hard work, and probably not all that great conditions, they threw down their scrubbing brushes and pails and signed up to work there in droves, because it was An Improvement. Plus better paid.

In rl, for large swathes of history, there were possibilities of making some slight improvements to one's lot, through luck or hard graft or changing social circumstances, so 'bettering oneself' was not a huge leap into the Upper Classes but having a nicer house and mother not having to go out charring and better clothes and children staying on at school rather leaving as soon as they could... and being able to afford medical care when needed.

Maybe the point of dystopia/oppressive system is that there is not that possibility? And even something a bit less binary might get rigidified - in M K Wren's 'Phoenix Legacy' (1981) there was a 'Fesh' class of people with technical and professional skills but I can't remember whether there was any movement between the various castes (probably not).

ETA And the corollary is that if anybody is cast out from the Haves, it is a descent into Horrible Squalor rather than just less lavish circs among NQOSD people.

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Homo-like, hetero-like?

Delphic sibyl

I've been given to think by a discussion in a locked post on LJ about friendship and people who claim that they can't somehow really be friends with persons of the same/opposite sex.

Okay, there is that whole pernicious trope of 'wymmynz b backstabbing bitches to one another', and that other one that cross-gender friendships, at least if the orientations of the individuals involved are compatible, can't really work because SEX.

And I'm sitting over here, thinking that friendship is All More Complicated.

On the whole, I don't think people make the assumption that because one's sexual orientation is whatever it is, that one will find Any Random Person of Specified Gender actually attractive.* Ditto, surely, for liking.

As far as friendship goes, I lean quite heavily on the concept of differences within persons of any given group rather than their similarity.

I cannot be the only person who around for whom it is a startling and lovely revelation to find somebody who is on the same wavelength, speaks the same language, gets the same jokes, in among all those people who, perfectly pleasant as they may be, don't ring that bell.

Sometimes, I will concede, one's bar may be set lower for this depending on circumstance - I've been in situations where encountering under otherwise unpromising conditions someone who read books for pleasure or had some other overlapping area of interest, was enough for me to wish to grapple them to my heart with hoops of steel or at least feel like a conspiracy of two against the rest.

There is also that thing - perhaps more so in one's youth, but perhaps not - where one hangs out with people and does stuff with them simply because they're there.

Anyway, just because you're a hedgehog and I'm a hedgehog is not necessarily a sound basis for being BFF anymore than a fling on the P&O going out to India constituted a social introduction.

*Plus, just because one finds someone attractive, doesn't inevitably mean leg-over situation must eventuate. There may be all sorts of factors which mean that, while acknowledging that X is not just a lovely intelligent and congenial person but also really quite HOTTT, there is no need to do anything about it. Really. Truly.

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50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers

I suppose it is not surprising that such a hairy-chested come-on (even though the compiler appears to be of the female persuasion) has rather an over-proportion of big fat books of conscious difficulty by blokes (not to mention a significant 'grim and unflinching' quotient). Even if some of those books are Clarissa. (Hmmm - and given that Sophie's Choice is among the number too, wonder how many invoke the edifying spectacle of an attractive woman SUFFERING.)

The whole thing reminds me of that thing that was around a few years ago of someone wanting to produce BOOKZ 4 BOYZ, that would be a kind of treehouse or gentleman's club thing with NO GURLZ ALLOWED.

I'm also wondering about what constitutes 'tough' in this context, or maybe it's just me who found The Waves a whole lot more challenging than To the Lighthouse?

Why isn't Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage in there, if you want tough?

Plus, when the tough get reading... what do the tough actually read? (Viz: all those heroes of the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, etc, drenching their moustaches with their tears over the works of Charlotte Yonge.)

Thought for a t-shirt: REAL MEN READ DAISY ASHFORD.

(I wonder if this somehow intersects with a thought I'd been having during the week about the other half of the Slow Motion Trainwreck Relationship, who had some odd ideas about the purpose and point of reading, or indeed most things that one might do for entertainment, which, although not exactly replicating Victorian models of 'useful' or 'improving', was weirdly not dissimilar.)

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Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

Another television drama I have no desire to watch

Presumably somewhere out there are people writing serious contemporary dramas that do not feature the maiming and murder of women. Good luck to them, you have to say, because what chance does their work stand of ever seeing the green light of commission?
what's wrong with all such characters – is that they didn't seem to have watched the kind of television in which they happen to be appearing. They were ignorant of the conventions, clueless as to the clues.

Reissue of Mary Renault, The Charioteer

Katharine Whitehorn on Her Brilliant Career. See also, Miranda Sawyer on women in broadcasting.

Lesley Yellowlees: 'I saw something no one else had seen': A solar energy pioneer, the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry is striving to open up R&D to more women: and another one for the 'non-linear trajectory of women's careers' list.

The rather erratic Eva Wiseman on the unsung importance of comfort.

I am so sticking to conventional forms of massage at any spa I go to: Eels, fish and formaldehyde – the risks of new beauty treatments. The place for eel and fish is inside me, possibly as sushi, not nibbling on me.

'This Much I Know': Margaret Drabble, who has a new novel out.

Barbara Ellen (scroll down) is apparently unaware that white poppies are not some sudden new thing:

The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers - but a challenge to the continuing drive to war.

O tempora, o mores: How the 'thigh gap' became the latest pressure point on a woman's self-image. According to the novel on which the movies Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967) was based, one of the several factoids about sex mentioned by the protag as current among his peers is that if a girl's thighs didn't touch she wasn't a virgin.

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Don't think the trope really reverses...


Thinking, as one does, in the idle thoughts that drift through one's mind while getting a deep-tissue massage, about whether there is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy trope that reverses the MPDGirl trope.

And on thinking this through further, come to the conclusion that there is a MPDB trope but it is very different from the MPDG liberates and livens up sad bloke (or, as I have suggested elsewhere, 'HAI! Mi name iz ANIMA!').

The woman who encounters a MPDB is more likely than not to end up as Wendy to his Peter Pan, not just taking care of him but being Little Mother to the Lost Boys as well, ballast to his balloon, clutching the latest in a long row of offspring to her bosom and declaring that She Will Never Desert Mr Micawber (surely Mr M was a MPDB in his youth, and Harold Skimpole goes on being one).

This was a recurrent theme in the novels of GB Stern and indeed features in her ragbag memoirs. Am inclined to wonder if her husband was a MPDB.

Will Ladislaw starts out being a MPDB (no?), but under the influence of his feelings for Dorothea, actually grows up a bit.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Manic Pixie Dream Poet from Hell? discuss.

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Why didja havta be a rule-breaker

Subversive male

Glancing through this, found today via GeekFeminism, my thoughts riffed off into how much I hate the bad-boy rule-breaker WINS scenario when I encounter it in any form of narrative.

There are narrative scenarios in which I am quite okay with our protag finding themselves outside the law, whether the actual law or the rules of society.

Maybe they've been driven outside the system because they are wise to the Corruption Starting At The Top.

Maybe they've been fitted up for stuff they didn't actually do and thus acquired a Malign Reputation to begin with (O Hai, Francis Crawford of Lymond).

Maybe they have decided to break that rule or transgress that convention because they believe there is a higher value at stake.

But anyway, what you have in any of those scenarios is COSTS, and driving forces that are not about Our Hero's massive - ehrmmmm - ego, and inability to believe it possible that he may be mistaken.

Am now trying to think of bad-boy rule-breaker stuffs up scenarios in literature or other media - would Macbeth count? Antony, in A&C, has a certain bad-boy element, no?

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queen victoria is not amused

Given that there was a good deal of panic about the dreadful pace of modern life - trains! trams! steamships! five posts a day! electric telegraph! telephone! periodical press! - in the later C19th, did the terrible stress this caused ever form the basis of fictional futuristic speculations?

The usual suspects were leaning on urbanisation, industrialisation, capitalism, and class antagonism, whether as the evils overcome in News from Nowhere or as producing the Eloi/Morlock division in The Time Machine. The feminist writers were about putting the evils of society on male dominance.

In fact, checking up in NfromN, Morris makes Idleness, rather than frenetic activity, the disease of the past:

It is said that in the early days of our epoch there were a good many people who were hereditarily afflicted with a disease called Idleness, because they were the direct descendants of those who in the bad times used to force other people to work for them—the people, you know, who are called slave-holders or employers of labour in the history books. ... [T]hey, especially the women, got so ugly and produced such ugly children if their disease was not treated sharply, that the neighbours couldn’t stand it. However, I’m happy to say that all that is gone by now; the disease is either extinct, or exists in such a mild form that a short course of aperient medicine carries it off. It is sometimes called the Blue-devils now, or the Mulleygrubs.

This thought brought to you by encountering a similar sf scenario to that posited, to general critical scorn, by Susan Greenfield in 2121 - teh internetz b rewiring ur braynez, disaster and dystopia ensue.

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Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire
It is a fascinating tale, and if there is an element of luck to Olson having such great access it is the kind of luck you have to work like a dog to win, because this may be a tale about the reach and power of new technology, but it is backed up by old-fashioned investigative reporting. Olson's research is properly impressive.

Which is why it is a shame there is not more of her in the book. When I interviewed her for a piece I wrote on Anonymous last year, she described how she'd flown up to Shetland to meet Topiary while the world was still clueless as to his identity and it is such a great detective thriller that it's a shame that there's not more about the investigative process itself, though it is to Olson's credit that her modesty and sense of journalistic decorum prevented that.


For every possible pattern, you can concoct an equally convincing opposing theory; for every victim, there are countless survivors.

So, why 27? It remains a mystery. If there is any scientific research to explain why it's a particularly volatile age, then it is not included here among all the broad-brush quotations from the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Sounes painstakingly demolishes conspiracy theories and other forms of magical thinking but offers no persuasive alternative. It simply seems that some gifted musicians are unhappy, some of the unhappy ones become addicts, some of the addicts die, and some of those do so at 27. The longlist of 27 Club members in the appendix sinks the concept for good.

Sort of a new 'sifilitic geeenyus' trope? I.e. the correlation is a stretch and the causation, no can haz.


Yay Ruth Rendell:

I just want to tell a good story so I always ask myself, are these people real to me? The things I write about are completely removed from my own life, but people want to know the characters better. There are schools of thought that dispense with all that now, but I think if there are strong characters, people want to know more.

I have talked before about the withholding of information from the reader in a great book like Jane Austen's Emma and I do think it should be part of any story, if it is told well, whether or not it is detective fiction. The reader has got to be thinking, what does it mean? Why did they do that?

And possibly paging the shade of EM Forster about the role of mystery and withheld information in constructing plot.

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Probably not very coherent, it's Friday

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

While I was away last week, one of the things I did was watch some DVDs.

One of which was, what turned out to be a somewhat dysfunctional disc of Sabrina (the Hepburn/Holden/Bogart version).

In fact it stopped dead shortly before the end, but I don't think there was any doubt about where it was going by that time.

Some while back there was rather a spate of Marivaux on various London stages, and the whole 'person pitches woo at someone for non-romantic ulterior reasons, like distracting them while their mate puts the moves on the someone's current partner, and ooops, EMOTIONZ eventuate' (like a similar spate of Aphra Behn, this was A Thing and then the fashion passed and one never seems to see any Marivaux these days, chiz). I am not sure I could name which one it was, as they could all probably be called 'The Game of Love and Chance'. But anyway, this is a narrative arc which dates back at least that far.

(And is different from the 'seducing someone for a bet' trope.)

But one thing that I came across when looking it up was that Cary Grant was originally considered for the Bogart role and I was, well that would have killed any narrative tension absolutely stone dead. How could it possibly have been that the young Sabrina would have crushed on the younger, playboy, brother with Cary Grant in the picture? Whereas Bogart plays him rather as one might imagine the elder brother of the Prodigal Son.

Another movie I watched was Tea with Mussolini, which is about middle-aged and elderly and in some cases rather eccentric English ladies in Florence being (mostly quietly) awesome as Fascism rises and war breaks out. Also a couple of Americans, including a trouser-wearing and explicitly lesbian archaeologist and good egg played by Lily Tomlin. It is also gratifying to see Maggie Smith as an ambassador's relict Learning Better (eventually) and Admitting It. Also, Judi Dench as scatty arty lady, saving the frescoes at San Gimigiano.

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Women, on the edge of time

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

Article in today's Guardian G2 section on the absence of women from time travel movies.

Which, if so, is odd, because in written sff, women have long been writing time travel narratives, often featuring female characters, even if some of them fall into the YA category (e.g. Nesbit, Uttley, Mitchison) and thus (perhaps) even further off the map. Ditto, perhaps, a similarly long-standing tradition of time-travel romance (going back at least to Margaret Irwin, and I am quite willing to believe that she hardly invented it).

On another paw, perhaps not so odd, as the narratives I can think of are not, on the whole, slam-bang boys'-own adventures but raise issues of more complexity, ethical density, etc; not to mention the whole OMG We're Somehow In The Wrong Time-Line trope.

I can't immediately think of any time-travel narratives by women which I've read that would really readily turn into all-action fun movies. What with the sinister manipulating organisations like Russ's TransTemp and Kage Baker's Zeus (Co? Inc? can't offhand remember), or the being stranded in plague struck C14th village, or, of course, Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, just not your boys'-own adventure, really.

I am not sure whether this is entirely an issue of gender, as I daresay that given adequate time I could think of complex time-travel works by male authors, or featuring male leads (? du Maurier's House on the Strand, I think?), but more about the difference between written and filmed sff.

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Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire
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