Old Year, New Year

•December 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Most people I know love New Year’s Eve. Hate Christmas, love NYE. I’m the other way around. New Year’s Eve for me inevitably involves parties that never quite seem as fabulous as advertised, schlepping through crowds to see fireworks and then schlepping back, and a vague feeling that I didn’t really achieve very much in the last year and its pretty unlikely the new year will be any different. In an effort to pep myself up about the impending holiday I’m taking a moment to reflect on this years highlights:

1.) We moved to LA – a decision that the Engineer and I made so that he could take a job that wasn’t 75% travel and we could spend our time actually being together, rather than simply being on the same continent. A little stressful because it cuts me off from the one guaranteed source of income I had, but hopefully some sort of funding will come through.

2.) I defended my prospectus. And now I am proceeding to carve out new research territory that looks less and less like said prospectus with every passing week. As is the way of these things.

3.) I passed the Latin MA exam. In the manner of Latin, this didn’t actually register as a moment of success so much as a narrow escape from further torture. But, you know, measurably an achievement.

4.) I got engaged. Huzzah!

5.) I presented at Kalamazoo for the first time. And all my lovely colleagues bought me a book and filled the front page with kind and encouraging comments, and generally made me feel warm and fuzzy about the people in my program.

6.) In the process of getting engaged, we went on an incredible week long vacation to Mexico. The beaches were beautiful, the food was delicious and I saw one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

7.) I managed to keep up a reasonable writing habit. Work/life got in the way a few times. But the days I stick to my 1000 words, five days per week goal have been rewarding.

8.) I kept my new years resolutions from last year. These were “have hobbies” and “engage in leisure reading.” I’ve found time for writing, knitting, swing dancing and cooking. The local bookstores and comic stores are currently being kept in business as I strive to make up for four years of reading almost exclusively work-related books. Success!

Well, I feel suitably pepped. I hope y’all have a happy new year. Especially my various peeps for whom 2011 has sucked quite a bit. Let’s all hope 2012 sucks less.

Subverting Santa and other Enlightenment Pastimes

•December 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It’s been a while. I went on vacation to Mexico. And then I came back and worked on a grant application which, as usual, seemed to take ten times longer to edit than expected and neglected my blog completely. I’m aiming for  posts twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday. We’ll see how that goes. Holidays are coming up, but The Engineer and I are planning hanging out at home, eating, catching up on movies and cracking open some of the bottles of wine we have lying about from our visit to Sonoma last year, so my blogging goal should be achievable.

Speaking of holidays, there was a snippet on Jezebel about Justin Bieber, who said in an interview grew up without Santa Claus because his conservative Christian mom worried that when the Biebs figured out Santa wasn’t real, he might begin to question his belief in Jesus. Apparently not an uncommon position among evangelicals. Conversely, some atheist parents rail against Santa Claus out of fear of some sort of supernatural “thin-end-of-the-wedge” phenomenon wherein small children encouraged to believe in one kind of supernatural being will be inculcated in irrational thinking and believe in all kinds of other supernatural beings. Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief blog presents different angle on the whole dilemma entirely. Back in 2009 he wrote about techniques that atheist parents might use to make Santa Claus a teachable moment and turn a child’s questions about Santa into a Socratic discourse encouraging the child to examine rationally the evidence for the existence of the jolly present bringer.

A while back, I re-read Leigh Eric Schmidt’s article on ventriloquism and magic shows from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.(1) Schmidt has done some fascinating work tracing how Enlightenment critics of superstition and priestcraft appropriated the very techniques of hucksters and charlatans – ventriloquism, phantasmagoria and other displays of illusionism – to prove to the credulous how easily the human senses can be deceived by natural phenomena. The enchanter, in effect, became a tool of disenchantment.

Shifting to the ostensible theme of my blog, another magician with an uneasy relationship to disenchantment and enchantment is Lev Grossman’s Quentin Coldwater. After finishing The Magician King, Grossman’s sequel to The Magicians, I noticed the fantasy reading world firmly divided into loathers and lovers of the book. On the side of the loathers, people found Quentin and the other magicians unlikeable and, I think, felt that Grossman had sullied Narnia, and Hogwarts and the other realms into which every dedicated fantasy reader at one time in their life wished to escape. Then there were readers, like myself, who enjoyed the cynical anti-heroes who attended Brakebills school to study magic, and found that the Hogwarts and the Narnia of their childhood daydreams were as real as they hoped, but somehow nothing like what they expected. Magic involved a lot of tedium and back breaking work work to master and, in the end, didn’t insulate the magicians from tragedy. While there were quests and adventures to pursue in the world of Fillory, there was no escape from the pain and disappointment of reality. This isn’t wondrous Hogwarts. It’s graduate school for wizards, with all the hard drinking and disillusionment that goes with it. (*cough* notthatI’d knowanythingaboutthat *coughcough*)

Grossman’s deep affection for and knowledge of the genre is evident on every page of the book. At the same time, the author uses the tropes of enchantment to chart the protagonist’s path to disenchantment, much like nineteenth century ventriloquists and illusionists. I think this is what many fantasy fiction fans find unsettling about the book.

In the ongoing tussle between disenchantment and re-enchantment, and straight out enchantment, the proponents of reason and unreason are rarely aligned were you think they will be.

(1) Leigh Eric Schmidt, “From Demon Possession to Magic Show: Ventriloquism, Religion and the Enlightenment,”Church History 67:2 (1998) pp. 274-304.

Thing Thursday: Etymologies

•October 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Working through a stack of North Country wills for my dissertation today, and thinking about the interplay between public displays of largesse and social power, I came across this little gem.

“To Hugh Williams, the clerke of my lordes kitchen, my best horse…To William Hill, my awmbling nagge.”(1)

The wills that I am working on frequently incorporate large inventories of the testator’s goods and chattels, all very carefully ordered. The value, both monetary and symbolic, of each gift was assessed before being divvied up amongst family, friends and religious establishment. Although wills are notoriously laconic, they give the distinct impression that each gift spoke volumes about the esteem in which the recipient was held and the status of both giver and receiver in society.

While a horse was no doubt gratefully received, I like to imagine Tom’s  buddy Will being reminded of exactly where he stood in Tom’s estimation, every time Hugh galloped past him as he plodded along the country lanes on his poor old, awmbling nagge.
Fun fact: the French term for an ambling nag, is a haquenée, a word adopted for the English Hackney horse, which lent its name to the Hackney cab. (2)

1.)Will of Thomas Monghumbre a.k.a. Thomas Wilson, (undated), North Country Wills (Leeds: Surtees Society, 1908) p. 134

2.) Online Etymological Dictionary

Today, in idiotic writing advice

•October 25, 2011 • 1 Comment

A.K.A., why I am swearing off writing blogs:

Using active verbs to describe your characters’ actions can also help prevent awkward or flabby phrases. Early in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” for instance, “Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing.” Freddy isn’t “pulled along by the elbow,” nor is he “dragged by Gabriel across the landing” — instead, Gabriel “pilots” Freddy. This concise description instantly conjures up the image of one man directing another, but it also gives us a sense of Gabriel’s personality. He doesn’t guide or lead or assist Freddy; he pilots him. This active verb effectively sketches the characters’ movements, while simultaneously conveying Gabriel’s desire to steer people and events to suit his own purposes.”

(via shimmerzine)

“Piloting” is a gerund. A gerund in a passive voice sentence in as close to the subjunctive mood as you will get in English. That sentence is as cumbersome as all get out. If Gabriel actually piloted Freddy, that would be one thing. But he can be seen piloting. It’s Joyce, so I’m not criticizing the actual sentence. But I don’t think ‘write more like Joyce’ is particularly good advice to the aspiring writer.

My grammar is hardly spectacular. My adviser has, on a number of occasions, handed drafts back to me and said, with his eyebrows raised significantly, “I also included my little guide to the use of the comma for you.” And I still don’t know how to use a comma. But I, unlike the author of the above, do not write advice columns on how to write.

I have to write a grant today. I’m feeling a little punchy. Now where’s that bag of commas for me to toss about liberally, as my friend Fiona would say, like so much confetti…

Thing Thursday: Millenium Clock Tower

•October 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Over the weekend I was working on a portion of my novel that revolves around an enchanted clock, and remembered that I had photos from a visit to the National Museum of Scotland back in early 2003 buried somewhere. Now I know why I dragged that box full of photos, old greeting cards and postcards on one international move and one transcontinental move. Which brings us to this week’s Thing Thursday – the Millennium Clock Tower.

A slightly blurry image from an old film photo, unfortunately. The entire clock reaches up two storeys in the foyer of the Museum, and its distressed wooden frame is filled with pendulums, wheels, cogs and a myriad of fascinating beasts and creatures. In this image, you can make out one of the mischievous monkeys in amongst the clock workings, and above, wizened figures from the Requiem that each represent one of the twelve months and one of the hardships faced by humanity. Elsewhere, there are figures of Death, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin, and a Pietà. You can read more about the scheme on the Museum’s website.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering around the clock when I visited, examining all the figures and marveling at the clock’s mechanisms. I was about to start my Honours year at University in Medieval Studies, and the medieval influences on the work are unmistakeable in its allegorical figures and mastery of the grotesque.

There’s an ongoing debate in medieval Art History circles about role of grotesques in sacred art and architecture, one that stretches back to St Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apologia in which he demands to know,

“what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns?”

The reactions of the crowd who wandered about the clock perhaps reveal something of the motivation behind the use of the grotesque in the medieval period. The way the viewer would be drawn in, amused by a monkey winding a wheel, or morbidly fascinated by the skeletal form of Death, and then encounter the sombre figures that represented the greatest evils of the twentieth century, pause and contemplate the deeper meaning of the work. Rather than being mere decorative whimsies of questionable appropriateness for a sacred space, the clock suggested to me that grotesques were deployed very deliberately to direct the attention of viewers, to manipulate the propensity for the mind to wander and redirect it toward appropriate contemplation .

Certainly, the clock with its grotesques lodged somewhere deep in my mind, to resurface years later in my writing process.

Thing Thursday

•October 13, 2011 • 2 Comments

Inspired by the Cabinet of Curiosities, and my general love of thing theory, every Thursday I am going to highlight a cool object I come across in my travels. Today, Tycho Brahe’s nose(s).

I was noodling around on the interwebs yesterday, reading some book reviews and came across a reference to Tycho Brahe. It was the third or fourth reference to Tycho Brahe in as many weeks, which I took as a sign that I should mosey over to wikipedia and see what it had to say about him. This is how I lose entire afternoons chasing up obscure references from footnotes in papers that were only tangentially related to my work in the first place.

Obviously, Tycho Brahe’s contributions to astronomy are all very exciting, but I was more diverted by an entire subheading devoted to his nose. The bridge of which was apparently lopped off in a duel. As a result, he had not one, but several, prosthetic noses made in a variety of metals to make up for the deficit. I’m thoroughly tickled by the idea of having, say, a casual Friday nose in tin, and a Sunday best nose in gold, maybe something bejewelled in the event of a royal banquet or whatnot.

He also had a pretty killer mustache, by the looks of his portrait.

Percolating

•October 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Its been a while. Over a month, in fact. Oops. I went back to Chicago for a week to sit what I fondly refer to as The International Latin Exam of Certain Doom and to defend my prospectus. Caught up with my peeps. Wandered the streets of Chicago again, took some good photos of the Loop to use as reference for shots for my novel. Then I came home and had, quite literally, no thoughts for four weeks. Total brain fry. I’ve been doing a lot of administrative tasks that I keep lying around for occasions like this. Translating wills, cleaning up Zotero so that it functions like an actually useful research tool and writing grants on the work side. Doing plot and character development on the not-work side. I don’t even have the concentration for my current leisure reading pile. Which is not entirely surprising considering I am simultaneously slogging through as if they were written in quicksand rather than ink reading Anathem and Red Mars.

My present to myself for successfully defending my prospectus and surviving the ILEOCD was The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, which I purchased at my newly discovered local comic book store, Hi De Ho Comics (Great little comic book store if you’re ever in L.A.).

I’ve been dipping in fairly haphazardly, reading pieces contributed by some of my favorite authors – China Mieville, Garth Nix, Lev Grossman – and becoming acquainted with some new names. This collection of short stories and art, the editors explain, is based upon Thackery T. Lampshead’s collection of oddities and curios and includes sections on Holy Devices and Infernal Duds and Microbial Alchemy and Demented Machinery among other delights.

Aside from being a delightful diversion, Thackery T. Lampshead’s collection has me thinking about the question of starting points for writers. I’ve noticed that the myriad writing blogs sprouting in the blogosphere pose the question in terms of plot versus character and ask writers which comes first in their process. Neither of these options really jumped out as the starting points for my writing.

For me, the initial spark of inspiration for a piece of fiction has always been either an object or a place. Which will surprise people familiar with my academic interests not at all. The last few weeks I have been mentally wandering through a subterranean library, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and the site of the World Columbian Exposition and thinking about peepshow souvenirs, mandrake roots, astrolabes and fifteenth century maps. I wonder how many other speculative fiction writers, given the genre’s emphasis on world building and love of MacGuffins, are also place and thing writers?