rachelmanija: (Princess Bride: Let me sum up)
2017-04-20 12:17 pm

Department of No Shit Department

The opening paragraphs of the introduction by a psychologist with an alphabet soup of credentials, for Survivors.

This is a book about survivors, that is to say, those who continue to live when others have died. Looked at from one point of view this is very positive, in the sense that anyone who has a brush with death is lucky to survive. However, looked at from another point of view it is profoundly negative, in that one need not have had a brush with tragedy anyway.

It reminds me of the immortal Suicide by Cop: Committing Suicide by Provoking Police to Shoot You.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-04-17 11:47 am

The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero

An account of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic terrible movie, The Room, by the leading actor, who was also Tommy’s roommate, Tommy’s friend, and one of Tommy’s five credited assistants on The Room, two of whom never appeared on the set and one of whom was dead.

You can get a sense of The Room by watching this thirteen second clip: the unfathomable choice to shoot on unconvincing green screen in a parking lot rather than use the actual roof or studio they had available, Wiseau’s peculiar costume (chosen by himself) and even more peculiar line delivery (“I did not hit her, I did nawwwt! Oh hai Mark”), and most peculiar of all, Wiseau’s acting, which goes beyond mere woodenness to give the impression of an alien or robot attempting to imitate one of those strange “human” creatures.

Those thirteen seconds, Sestero tells us, took three hours to shoot due to Wiseau’s inability to walk, talk, hit his mark, or emerge from the Port-A-Potty-like outhouse without whacking his head.

The Disaster Artist is both an account of the making of a world-class bad movie and a character study of the world-class oddball who created it:

Even today, a decade later, I still can’t unsee Tommy’s outfit: nighttime sunglasses, a dark blazer as loose and baggy as rain gear, sand-colored cargo pants with pockets filled to capacity (was he smuggling potatoes?), a white tank top, clunky Frankenstein combat boots, and two belts. Yes, two belts. The first belt was at home in its loops; the second draped down in back to cup Tommy’s backside, which was, he always claimed, the point: “It keeps my ass up. Plus it feels good.”

Sestero may be a decent actor when not directed by Tommy Wiseau, but based on his lack of other credits, I suspect he’s a much better writer. His prose is a pleasure to read, and his depiction of the doom-laden hilarity of the making of a truly terrible movie is dead-on.

Tommy Wiseau is a strange, mysterious, lonely person who won’t say where he came from or how old he is, and has apparently unlimited funds. He connects with Sestero in a relationship that starts off casual and ends up taking over his life.

Sestero is a struggling actor who is inspired by Wiseau’s ability to be totally himself (he has pens printed with “Wiseau’s Planet,” which he may have beamed down from; that would explain a lot); Wiseau seems to be attempting to figure out human interactions by studying the one person willing to be his friend, with a side of spooky fixation a la The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s all fun and games until Sestero is lying awake and seething at 4:00 AM while Wiseau is hanging upside down like a bat from the pull-up bar he installed on the door to Sestero’s room.

I tried to imagine Tommy's mind from the inside out. I saw burning forests, blind alleys, volcanoes in the desert, city streets that plunged into the ocean, barricades everywhere, and all of it lit in the deep-cherry light of emergency.

The book is dead-on about the way you can slip into a friendship with someone you like at first, who then reveals more and more clingy weirdness until you suddenly wake up wondering how the hell you put up with it for so long and run for the hills. Once Sestero is no longer rooming with Wiseau, he’s more able to appreciate Wiseau’s peculiar brand of charm. Which does exist, but is best enjoyed from a distance.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (currently $1.99 at Amazon).
rachelmanija: (Default)
2017-04-13 04:12 pm

The Good Place

The Good Place is a half-hour sitcom/serial; it doesn’t have standalone episodes but tells a single continuous story in thirteen episodes. I have no idea if this is now a common format for sitcoms, because I almost always dislike the genre and so don’t usually watch it. It’s not because of humiliation humor, it’s because I almost never find them funny. I also dislike the weird stagy way they deliver dialogue. Also, I generally dislike stories set in the afterlife.

The Good Place is a sitcom with that annoying stagy way of speaking, set in the afterlife. And yet I liked it a lot.

I found it very funny, with likable characters that I got invested in and a compelling storyline. It also did some things with the writing that I have never seen done before in exactly that way. Unfortunately, it’s hugely spoilery what they are, and the show is definitely best enjoyed unspoiled. Every single episode concludes with some kind of twist or revelation or cliffhanger, so even discussing what happens after episode one will spoil some of the enjoyment of episode two. So I will just explain the premise and a little bit of what I enjoyed about it, and put the rest of the entry behind a cut.

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) dies and wakes up in the Good Place, a candy-colored Heaven bearing a suspicious resemblance to American suburbia. She’s immediately greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the angel who designed the Good Place. She has a perfect house made specially for her, and her very own soul mate with whom she can be together forever.

There’s just one problem: she’s the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop. Due to some mix-up, Michael thinks she was a do-gooder who saved starving children in refugee camps. In fact, she’s a selfish, shallow person whose life of misdeeds is shown in hilarious flashbacks. But she’s not stupid, and she definitely doesn’t want to be sent to the Bad Place. So after she’s shown to the house designed for the right Eleanor Shellstrop (decorated with giant paintings of terrifying clowns, because that Eleanor Shellstrop loved clowns), she confides in her assigned soul mate, Chidi, a sweet ethics professor. Can he teach her to be good before she gets found out, so she’ll actually deserve to stay in the Good Place?

The acting is across-the-board stellar, but I especially enjoyed Ted Danson doing a world-class job of a role that’s always fun, the inhuman being who likes but doesn’t really get humans, and Kristen Bell walking the tightrope of making Eleanor likable but not nice.

You can watch the entire thing on the NBC website.

Don’t read past the cut unless you want to be spoiled for literally everything. Read more... )
rachelmanija: (Default)
2017-04-02 10:44 am

TV watching poll

After not watching much TV for two years, I actually caught up on a couple shows. However, all are best left unspoiled, in some cases for everything but the premise.

Which shows would you like me to make spoilery discussion posts on? Feel free to talk about or rec/anti-rec them in comments to this post, but only in a non-spoilery manner.

Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 76


Which TV show would you like me to post on?

View Answers

Legion
18 (23.7%)

The Good Place
34 (44.7%)

Better Call Saul (Season one)
7 (9.2%)

Killjoys
14 (18.4%)

11.22.63
3 (3.9%)

rachelmanija: (I wrote my own deliverance)
2017-03-30 11:48 am

The Room Where It Happened

A couple nights ago I attended a meeting of the city council on whether to declare my city, Culver City, a sanctuary city. It was already acting as one, but the measure made it actual law.

Culver City is its own city within LA county, with its own police force; I live on the dividing line, which means that if I observe a crime being committed on my side of the street I call Culver City police, but if it's across the street it's a matter for LAPD. Culver City police is the police force I volunteer with. It practices neighborhood policing, in which police are assigned to a specific neighborhood for years and sometimes permanently, so they can get to know who lives there and what's normal and what isn't. They also believe in de-escalating situations rather than charging in with guns blazing, and I have seen this in action. No organization is perfect... but they're really good.

One of my neighbors emailed me to inform me of the sanctuary city vote, and so I showed up. I live in a fourplex, and found at the meeting that all four apartments in my building had at least one representative at the meeting: a 100% building turn-out! I'm in the first row in the black jacket. The guy on my right is my downstairs neighbor.

It was my first city council meeting. There was a huge turn-out consisting of hundreds of Culver City residents and eight or ten non-resident paid Trump agitators. The Trump agitators were next to me, against the wall.

Because of the huge turn-out, the council had other matters go first. I was charmed by the multiple Farmer's Market vendors who spoke to urge the council to re-hire a guy named Emanuel who had been running the market for nine years, all eloquently praising him, often mentioning "despite his youth." When they were done, Emanuel himself spoke. He mentioned being 29, so he started when he was 20! Impressive. He was voted in. I was also intrigued by the several vendors who made references to the previous manager leaving under what were apparently mysterious circumstances ("Emanuel took over after [I forget his name] left... for whatever reason," and "Since [Whover] went... wherever he went," etc).

Then we moved on to the main matter. 79 people spoke, at two minutes each. All but one of the actual Culver City residents were in favor of the sanctuary city resolution, which is pretty amazingly unified. It was cool to hear everyone's stories - immigrants, descendants of Holocaust survivors, lawyers making lawyerly suggestions, teenagers, pastors, veterans, and a hilarious number of parents of exactly two children, many of them attending the same high school. (Culver City has the fourth most diverse school population in America - 25% African-American, Asian American, Latino/a, and White.)

The Trump agitators loudly booed and cat-called Every. Single. Speaker. This despite the council members repeatedly telling them not to. A high school student from an immigrant family made a very moving speech, and started crying when he spoke about his family's struggles; the Trump agitators loudly mocked him. At that, the entire audience got up and gave the student a standing ovation.

The agitators' speeches were clearly meant for some audience other than their actual one; Trumpers on youtube, I think. They threatened and insulted the council members and audience, yelled, "Sessions is coming for you!" invoked strange Biblical conspiracy theories, and said, "They're gonna rape your women!" and "They're gonna kill you all!" Culver City is extremely liberal and this did not go over well.

The meeting started at 7:00 PM, and ended at a quarter to 1:00 AM. By around 11:00, the heckling and booing was getting pretty old. A Muslim speaker who was calling for peace and brotherhood got called a murderer and terrorist. At that point, I snapped, "SHUT UP!" and a council member had the loudest yeller evicted. When he was allowed back in about half an hour later, he brandished and set off a taser. He was then escorted out by the cops and not allowed back in.

The remaining agitators got bored and left before the actual vote. The council members spent about an hour debating the actual provisions of the measure, with input from the chief of police and the city attorney. In the end, the measure passed 3-1 (the dissenter also voted for sanctuary, but as a symbolic measure only without specific provisions), with one provision stricken (providing funds for immigrants' legal defense) and a few others reworded. Victory!

The whole thing got me interested in city politics, which I haven't been involved in previously in that sense. It was also nice to do something as a part of my community, after mostly living under a rock for the last two years.
rachelmanija: (Default)
2017-03-14 10:54 am

AMA (Ask Me Anything) about the Change series! (Spoilery post)

In honor of the upcoming release of Rebel (Book 3).

Ask me anything about the series, the characters, the world, etc. Sherwood will be popping in too!

This post allows spoilers for both Stranger and Hostage.

Ask questions here in this post!
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-03-14 10:49 am

AMA (Ask Me Anything) about the Change series! (Non-spoilery post)

In honor of the upcoming release of Rebel (Book 3).

Ask me anything about the series, the characters, the world, etc. Sherwood will be popping in too!

This post allows spoilers for Stranger but not Hostage. There is a spoilery post which allows spoilers for both books that are out now.

Ask questions here in this post!
rachelmanija: (Naruto: Super-energized!)
2017-03-13 02:03 pm

Rebel (Book 3 of the Change series) comes out May 16!

Welcome back to Las Anclas, a frontier town in the post-apocalyptic Wild West. In this perilous landscape, a schoolboy can create earthquakes, poisonous cloud vipers flock in the desert skies, and the beaches are stalked by giant mind-controlling lobsters.

The tyrant king Voske has been defeated, but all is not peaceful in Las Anclas. Ross's past comes back to haunt him, Jennie struggles with her new career, Mia faces her fears, Felicite resorts to desperate measures to keep her secrets, Kerry wonders if Las Anclas has really seen the last of her father, and shy Becky Callahan may hold the key to a dangerous mystery.

In Rebel, long-held secrets of past and present are revealed, family ties can strangle as well as sustain, and the greatest peril threatening Las Anclas comes from inside its walls.

Rebel (The Change # 3)

If you would like to review it, let me know and I'll send you an advance review copy (ebook only).

The LJ version has the cover image.
rachelmanija: (Default)
2017-02-22 12:26 pm

Narnia fanfic

For the Chocolate Box exchange, which focuses on romantic or friendship pairings, I wrote The Gift for [personal profile] aurilly's request for Emeth/Tirian from The Last Battle. If you don't remember him, Emeth was the honorable young Calormene officer, who made a disproportionate impression in a very brief appearance, at least on those of us who like noble warriors.
rachelmanija: (Fowl: Evil Chicken)
2017-02-17 09:28 am

A More Specific Grievance

This post is about the blackmailer, harasser, bully, and maker of death threats known by the remarkably apt name of Requires Hate. She has a ridiculous number of other socks and pseudonyms, such as Winterfox (her former LJ handle), Benjanun Sriduangkaew (her pro writer identity), Lesifoere (spewer of repulsive transphobic slurs), and at least four or five more. There may be others which are still unknown. It would not surprise me in the slightest if she had a second career threatening people in, say, the hamster fancier community, under twenty different vicious sock identities.

She harassed me for years and is still doing it; she carried on elaborate campaigns to destroy the careers of other pro writers in her genre; she befriended people and then blackmailed them; the list goes on. As far as anyone can tell, she's devoted her entire life to being horrible, online and off, for a minimum of twelve years now.

I have encountered a lot of mean people in my life. But Winterfox is the only person I've ever known who makes people miserable as a full-time job. I literally do not know how she finds the time to bully as many people as she does, as constantly as she does. She could afford to bankroll organizations protecting human rights or rescuing orphan kittens. She could create her own publishing house. She could go on really awesome long vacations. But no. She just hunches over her computer 24-7, spewing vitriol in all directions.

I think we need a word that means "pathetic and a little bit darkly funny, but also genuinely harmful." I suggest "winterfoxy."

So why am I posting now? What's new?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Winterfox is still doing everything she used to do, as far as I can tell. She still makes death threats. The people she blackmailed are still being blackmailed. She still harasses me in the exact same way she always did: I review a comic book about gay men in Iran, she accuses me on Twitter of being a child abuser.

At least, I assume she's still attacking me. I have asked (and still ask) people to not inform me if they see her saying anything about me. Since I don't do Twitter anyway, this means I miss about 99% of her activities and so only randomly and occasionally hear about it when she lies about or abuses me. Last time was about six months ago, so I imagine I'm due. Bring it, Winterfox. If you tweet about me a thousand times, I'll probably hear about one of them. I'm sure you'll find that motivational.

I am writing about her again for a couple reasons. One is to link to a surprisingly funny (considering the subject matter) essay by my friend, fantasy author Zen Cho, Being an Itemized List of Disagreements . Another is a thoughtful and heartfelt post by another friend, artist and writer M Sereno, A Letter to Apex Editors . Both were written to protest the embrace of a vicious and destructive bully, protect vulnerable people from her, and alert people who might not know exactly who they're dealing with to her past and current activities.

That's also why I posted. (So linking is fine.) Winterfox doesn't scare me any more. She's way too much of a coward to risk hiring a hit man, let alone confronting me in person. Anyone who believes I'm a child abuser or pro-rape or whatever because some rando on Twitter said so is not only not someone whose opinion I care about, they probably don't even know who the hell I am. I don't go to science fiction conventions, so she can't get me ostracized there. There's really nothing she can do to harm me.

But there are other people she can harm. There are people she is harming right now. She and her supporters make the science fiction world unwelcoming to her targets, who are disproportionately women of color. They also make it unwelcoming to onlookers who see people like them getting abused with impunity and even applause, and decide to go elsewhere. Not fucking okay, Winterfox supporters!

Sometimes life hands you difficult and complex ethical problems in which the right thing to do is genuinely unclear. This is not one of them. If you are endorsing someone whose big contribution to your field is to tell women of color that they should be raped by dogs, you are not one of the good guys.

I'm not calling for a boycott of her fiction. I'm not even saying you should stop being buds with her, though if you are, for God's sake don't email her anything she could hold over you later. What I am saying is that you should not ostracize people on her account, join in on bullying, believe anything she says about anyone without checking it yourself, brush off her death threats, or invite her to a roundtable on intersectionality. For instance.

Also, if you see someone interacting with her who doesn't know her history, you might want to warn them. I told her once to stop verbally abusing people, and I have now been harassed by her for six years and counting. Others thought she was their friend, and are still being blackmailed by her. If people know about her and choose to interact with her anyway, that's up to them. But if they don't know, a heads-up might save them a world of trouble.

If you already totally agree with me and would like to get Winterfox's goat, I have some suggestions for ruining her day.

You could donate to Outright Action International . They do stellar work in international LGBTIQ rights. I raise money for them, and Winterfox attacks me every time I do it online. So clearly, donating to them would really annoy her.

You could buy some art from M Sereno. It's gorgeous, and I bet it would really piss Winterfox off to know that people are financially supporting and appreciating the work of someone who had the nerve to speak out about her. Especially, to continue the theme of queer rights, the lovely print "To Live."

You could buy Zen Cho's awesome books, ditto: Sorcerer to the Crown, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, Spirits Abroad, and The Terracotta Bride.

You could buy or review books by people she harasses and whose careers she's tried to destroy, and also by people who supported them. That list is very long so I'll just link to a few: The Grass King's Concubine by Kari Sperring, Serpentine by Cindy Pon, Glass Houses: Avatars Dance by Laura Mixon, To Shape the Dark (Feral Astrogators) by Athena Andreadis, Rosewater by Tade Thompson, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan, The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan, Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan, and What Fates Impose (includes a story by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz).

I initially wasn't going to post more than just links to the other two posts. I'm seriously ill and didn't think I had the energy for either the writing of or the fallout from a post like this. But when I started, I realized that in fact, I'm sick enough that I really don't give a damn. Also, apparently thinking about Winterfox gives me some energy. The WTF factor alone could launch a thousand ships.

I realized something else, too. No matter how bad things get for me, I will always have one thing to be grateful for: at least I'm not Winterfox.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-02-16 09:15 am

A Different Light, by Elizabeth Lynn

In a future world, cancer has been all but eradicated. Jimson Alleca can live another 20 years with drugs and a peaceful lifestyle -- if he stays in space-normal. But he's willing to risk it all to make the jump into the Hype, the shimmering "not space" for one year among the stars.

I have a huge thing for choosing a short time of glory over a long stretch of not-so-great, so this premise was right up my alley. I also love the trope of "space will kill you but let's go anyway."

This book is and is not that. The blurb is correct as far as it goes, but the tone and content are not what I expected from it. It's much quieter, the emotions are far more low-key, and what Jimson actually does with his one year before leaving the planet kills him is nowhere near as dramatic as I expected. I liked it for what it was, though the beginning is stronger than the rest, but I'm still looking for the book the blurb promised.

Jimson is an artist with bone cancer under control with treatment, so long as he never goes into space; if he does, it will metastasize and kill him within a year due to radiation exposure. His art is acclaimed in worlds he'll never see, and he's still hung up on Russell, the boyfriend who bailed on him for outer space fourteen years ago and hasn't contacted him since. Jimson has gotten increasingly depressed, bored, artistically blocked, and trapped. Then Russell sends him a photo of himself with no note, and Jimson decides that he's had it: he'll take his one year and go look up Russell.

My favorite part of the book was this part, where Jimson is making his decision and taking interim steps toward it. There's some really beautiful writing and imagery. It's also, despite the sound of it, less about Russell (who has not yet appeared) and more about what Jimson wants to do with his life in general.

Then Jimson finally goes off-planet. I was expecting a desperate, defiant grab at glory and wonder in shimmering not-space. What he actually does is plonk down in a town on another planet, have a low-key affair with a woman pilot, and hang out in a bar. For months. And months. He has ONE YEAR TO LIVE, because he went off-planet, and he spends a whole lot of it not doing anything he couldn't have done on his own planet. I'm not sure if this was the point or what, because eventually Russell shows up and things take a different turn, but also, unfortunately, into anticlimax.

Russell is a giant bag of dicks. Again, I'm not sure if he was supposed to be or not, but I really disliked him. (I did like the portrayal of sexuality - most characters are bisexual and this is unremarked-upon - I just disliked Russell.) He's a space pirate, and realistically they would probably be jerks, but seriously? JERK. He ditches his doomed boyfriend and doesn't contact him for fourteen years, then sends him a photo and nothing else. The vanishing was because he was flipped out over Jimson's illness, and is understandable. The fourteen-years-late space selfie with no note attached? JERK. He then proceeds to be a dick for the rest of the book, though at least Jimson gets to be with him and is at least somewhat pleased about that.

Again, given the suggested delicious melodrama of the premise, Jimson is an incredibly low-key character and so is the book. There's one scene that sort of lives up to the "shimmering hyperspace" bit but Jimson's experience of hyperspace is that it's kind of reddish, and he spends most of it wandering around the spaceship making sure the characters who are doing exciting stuff don't forget to eat.

There's some mild space adventuring which is nowhere near exciting enough that I'd give up my whole life for it, followed by an ending which you may or may not read as a cop-out. Read more... )

This is at least the second book I've read in which someone chooses to go into space for a brief period of glory before it kills them. The other is Emma Bull's Falcon, which I like a lot but which skips most of the "period of glory" part, jumping from the moment right before the hero goes into space to several years later, when his time is about to run out.

Does anyone know of any more books with that premise? Especially if they actually write it the way it sounds like.

Only $4.00 on Amazon. A Different Light
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-01-29 12:37 pm

Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston; approaches to risk

This is the memoir of the guy who went climbing in an isolated part of Colorado without telling anyone where he was going, had an 800 lb boulder fall on his hand, and was trapped in a narrow canyon for six days with one day’s worth of food and water before he finally saved his life by amputating his arm with his multi-purpose tool, then climbing out and hiking for miles.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I saw this book when it came out, but never picked it up as I assumed that it would be a poorly-written “as told to” with a magazine article’s worth of content telling the story I bought the book for plus a book’s worth of boring padding about where he grew up, who he dated in college, etc. rmc28, who gave it to me, assured me that it was not that. She was correct. Thank you very much! It is indeed very good and I liked it a lot.

I was pleasantly surprised by what a good writer he is. He’s also, at times, a genuinely original thinker. He was a mechanical engineer, and he didn’t just sit there under the boulder, he devised several MacGyver-esque mechanical solutions to get himself out, including a remarkable system of ropes engineered to try to lift the boulder off his arm. They didn’t work due to 800 lb boulder vs. ropes without pulleys operated by one man stuck in one position and only able to use one hand, but it was one hell of a good try and makes for fascinating reading.

This originality comes through in other places too, like when he speculates that the “life review” memories that sometimes flash through people’s minds in extremis are a last-resort backup system to fight-flight-freeze, and are there to provide motivation to make one final effort for survival on behalf of their loved ones or their possible future, when otherwise people might just give up and die. I never thought of it that way before, but it’s a fascinating idea and he convinced me.

The only point where the book falls flat is at the very end, where he visibly sees the end in sight and rushes through “Recovery sucked but I was back rock-climbing two months post-amputation and I went on Letterman and my family is awesome and I learned important life lessons from the whole thing, bye!” in about two pages.

Otherwise, it’s a well-constructed, thoughtful, page-turning read, with lots of suspense and surprises. If all you know is the news accounts, there was a lot left out; at least, there was a lot that I hadn’t known. For instance, why he waited so long to cut off his arm; it turns out that the obstacles went way beyond the obvious and into seemingly not even being physically possible, as did how/why he finally did it.

Ralston can also be pretty funny, sometimes in a dark way but also more casually. There’s some beautiful nature descriptions. The depiction of how one’s mind works under imminent but prolonged threat of death is extremely well-depicted and absolutely accurate to my own experience and what I’ve heard from others. If this isn’t something you’ve experienced yourself but you want to write about it, his book would be an excellent resource.

Obviously, it contains an account of an amputation (not that long but quite vivid). Also a color photo (easy to avoid if you read in paper copy— it’s toward the end of the second photo section).

Getting back to the original news story, I suspect that a lot of people had the same two thoughts I did when it first came out: “Holy shit, that guy is hardcore,” and “Why the hell didn’t he leave a note saying where he was going?”

People who enjoy risk for its own sake tend to divide into two groups. There are the ones who take meticulous precautions to decrease the risks that they can control, and spend a lot of time contemplating “What should I do if…?” so when they need to take action on a split-second’s notice, they won’t waste precious time thinking, “What should I do?” or rush into foolhardy action.

Those types of people, by which I mean me, find it very annoying when non-risk-takers call them reckless, because in their minds, they are the opposite of reckless. When they hear “reckless,” they don’t think of NASCAR racers or bomb defusers. They think of Aron Ralston. Not because of the boulder, which could have happened to anyone. Because he didn’t leave a note.

The other type of risk-taker is impulsive, doesn’t take extensive (or sometimes even basic) precautions, and trusts in their skills and strength to get them out of trouble. At best, they’re jaw-droppingly badass; at worst, they’re living out their own personal Jackass. Based on his own book, this is indeed Aron Ralston. At least, it was at the point when the boulder fell on his hand. (He becomes much more level-headed once it is literally impossible to not spend some time sitting and thinking.)

When I first heard his story on the news, after my first uncharitable thought, I figured maybe he’d gotten lost and people were searching the wrong area, or he normally told someone where he was going but just hadn’t that one time. Nope, it was exactly like it sounded like: he went climbing in a dangerous and extremely isolated area alone, without telling anyone where he was going. Moreover, getting trapped with no one knowing where to search for him (or even when he was supposed to be back) was not an isolated incident, but the latest and most dramatic of a series of wilderness accidents either caused or exacerbated by his own actions.

But here’s what makes his book interesting: I’m just repeating what he says himself. Without either bragging or breast-beating, he recounts his history of recklessness, how he kept getting into accidents which he was then able to extricate himself from because he really was strong and brave and skilled, and how that reinforced his belief that he could do anything and get himself out of anything.

To write a good memoir, you have to let go of the desire to make people like you, and be honest about yourself to the best of your ability. Ralston’s memoir feels very honest. He was a bit of a privileged hipster dude who did a lot of reckless stuff, some of which affected others as well as himself, and kept on doing it out of ego and a lack of belief in his own mortality. But he’s aware of that dynamic. And that’s a big part of what makes his memoir, which cuts back and forth from the bottom of the slot canyon to his life up to that point, unified and compelling rather than padded and dull. It’s not a random collection of anecdotes, it’s a character portrait leading up to the ultimate in-character story.

Back to those two types of risk-takers, death by stupidity is one of my ultimate horrors. I have never doubted my mortality. I totally believe that the world has teeth. Death is inevitable, but I don’t want to meet it thinking, “Why the hell didn’t I leave a note?” I take precautions largely so when I do, I’ll at least be able to think, “This could have happened to anyone.” If my car gets trapped in the bomb zone (this has actually happened), I want to be able to say, “I underestimated how far that was likely to extend, next time I’ll park farther away, but it was an easy mistake to make and the majority of us made it, including our team leader.”

But what’s that really about? Ego. I want to feel good and look good to others (as opposed to wanting to be liked), just in a different way from the reckless kind. I want people to think, “She went in with her eyes open and did everything right, sometimes life just hands you the short straw.” Ralston wanted people to think, “Man, what a badass, that guy lived to the fullest and followed his dreams without fear.” Neither of us were motivated to avoid the slot canyon and the boulder, we were motivated to avoid thinking badly of ourselves and imagining others thinking badly of us once we were sitting at the bottom. We just had different ideas of “badly.”

But that’s not why he was climbing mountains and I was going to crime scenes, it’s just how we approached the question of personal risk. The actual “why” was how it all felt to him, and that sounds a lot like how it all felt to me. He liked adrenaline, he liked nature, he liked using his body skillfully and pushing it to the limits, and he liked being the guy who lived dangerously. He was doing some stuff to show off, but that was mostly the careless parts; climbing itself was something he did because he loved doing it.

It’s hard to feel lucky in more than a very abstract way when you’re in the bottom of a canyon with a boulder on your hand. But there’s worse things to regret than not leaving a note. He could have never climbed at all, and kept his hand and skipped the trauma. But then he would have skipped his entire life.

No matter how hard we imagine it and wish they would, God and the Devil never come down to offer us a deal: your life if you devote the rest of it to good works and always leave a note, your life for your right hand, a takeback on the entire boulder incident if you also take back all the climbing you ever did. In real life, all we can do is evaluate what we would have chosen if there had actually been a choice. It always seems to come down to your actual life with the worst parts included, or an entirely different one with both the worst and the best parts left out. Ralston says he’d have taken the life he did live, exactly as it was.

I believe him. He still climbs.
rachelmanija: (Default)
2017-01-25 11:02 am

A DW to check out

It's been great to see the increased posting and discussion around here. I'd like to call your attention to a cool new DW by someone who missed the friending meme, but who I think a lot of you would enjoy following. (I asked her, it's OK.)

You may know [personal profile] iknowcommawrite as Scioscribe. She is a very cool person who likes books, music, writing, noir, Hamilton, Stephen King, and many other good things. Last Yuletide she not only made me very happy by writing TWO amazing Stephen King treat stories for me, Bird and Bear and Hare and Fish from The Dark Tower and Works of Mercy from The Stand, she amazed everyone at reveals when it turned out that she had written fourteen stories total.

Previously I knew her as the writer of another amazing Dark Tower story with a perfect closing line, appalling strangeness (i have not forgotten your face), and as a writer of excellent, often metafictional or surreal Hamilton stories, of which Notes Concerning Certain Performances of Hamilton is a good introduction. The latter is short, has a very original concept very well-excuted, and is best read without spoilers. If you like it, I'm also very taken with another metafictional Hamilton story also best left unspoiled due to its unusual working out of the idea of "Who tells your story?" The Source of Distant Rivers, the Sound of Distant Guns.

Her inaugural entry (other than fic challenge letters) happens to be about Laura's Wolf (Werewolf Marines), which I wrote under the pen name of Lia Silver. (For those new to my blog: I write professionally as Rachel Manija Brown, Lia Silver, and Rebecca Tregaron; ask about them if you're curious!) Don't worry about talking about Laura's Wolf in comments there if you feel so moved; I don't watch or comment to reviews of things I wrote unless specifically invited, normally I wouldn't mention a review at all, and I am ducking out right now.

But before I and you go, I want to once again thank both her and [personal profile] musesfool, who wrote me with our way lit only by stars, a lovely Earthsea story, for making last Yuletide such a happy one for me. They both wrote me stories that I have read and re-read, which are not only good as stories and good as fanfic, but were specifically tailored to me and my requests. It was wonderful for me as a reader and fan, and moving to me as a human being.

I'd had a really terrible year in which a lot of the awfulness involved people not caring about me and refusing to help me (authority figures with power over me whose help I needed) so having both a surprise!friend and someone who at that time I know only from her work choose to devote their time and effort and skill just to make me happy was hugely meaningful to me. Thanks again. ;)
rachelmanija: (SCC: Strong)
2017-01-23 01:32 pm

The Barkley Marathons and pushing your limits

A while back I reviewed a memoir by Lynne Cox, a record-setting endurance swimmer. The entry contains a fantastic set of comments recommending books and articles and media on the topic of mind-body experiences and pushing one's physical/mental limits.

One of the most interesting was on the Barkley Marathons, an extraordinarily challenging wilderness endurance run which is also extraordinarily weird. The entrance fee used to be a flannel shirt, but now it's a license plate from anyone's car but your own. This wonderful article is the best introduction to it.

It’s no easy feat to get here. There are no published entry requirements or procedures. It helps to know someone. Admissions are decided by Laz’s personal discretion, and his application isn’t exactly standard, with questions like “What is your favorite parasite?” and a required essay with the subject “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run In the Barkley.”

This LJ entry has a fascinating account of the Barkley by a guy who got so exhausted that he literally forgot where he was and what he was doing. Comments have some personal anecdotes of similar experiences, along with one of mine at the end.

This documentary is best watched after reading the article, as it minimizes explanation in favor of experience. It's quirky and rambling and fun, and has several satisfying narrative coups. One is when, about fifteen minutes in, it gets around to explaining some of the Barkley's more eccentric and difficult characteristics, in an understated manner with diagrams. They are so outrageous that I burst out laughing. Another is the origin of the name, which doesn't come up until near the end and neatly sums up the charmingly WTF nature of both the founder and the entire thing. The last is a question that kept not getting asked, and not getting asked, until I finally gave up on it. It's asked at the very end. The answer is perfect.

Right now, due to horrendous health problems, it's very questionable if I will ever again do anything more strenuous than walking a couple city blocks. So I'm glad I pushed my physical/mental limits while I could and wanted to and enjoyed it. Had I known what was coming, I might have done more. Probably not a lot more, because I was already doing everything I really wanted to do. But maybe a little more, just for the memories and to have no regrets rather than very few. But had I known what was coming, it would have depressed the hell out of me, so it wouldn't have been worth it. I'm glad I didn't know.

But even at my physical peak, I probably never could have done the Barkley. I don't think I ever had the level of athletic potential to be accepted - I was always more impressive in terms of spirit than in physicality. Technically speaking, I was not only not a world-class athlete, I wasn't even in the top five in my own dojo. Even if I'd somehow gotten into the Barkley on the basis of sheer mental fortitude, a lot of it involves finding your way around, and my sense of direction is wretched. Finally, I already had a sport. To train for something like the Barkley, I would have had to give up or cut way down on karate to devote myself to running, and I loved karate but I've only ever mildly liked running.

But if I could wave a magic wand and make all those obstacles disappear, I would love to try the Barkley.

It's one of the most hardcore tests I've ever heard of for some odd stuff that I am or was unusually good at. Obviously I don't have physical endurance in terms of stuff like training all day any more, but I used to have a fairly impressive amount for an amateur. It involves sleep deprivation, and I'm good at that. I've worked around the clock quite a lot in my life. I've gone entirely without sleep for at least 72 hours multiple times. My functioning degrades, but less than average based on what other people were doing under the same circumstances.

Most importantly, it's a test of persistence. That is something I still possess. I've met lots of people who are better than me at every other thing I'm good at. I have never met anyone who's better than me at not giving up. I am pretty sure I'm world-class at that one. If there's something I really, really want, and there's no reason to quit beyond that it's hard and giving up would provide quick gratification at the cost of the thing I really, really want, I have never quit.

The Barkley intrigues me for an odd motivation mentioned in the film: people run it because it's something they can fail at. It's a challenge for people who've never failed at certain things, and so don't know what their limits really are. The flip side is that maybe, if they can find a thing they could fail at, they'll be able to know for sure that they are limitless.

Is there anything that could make me think, "This is miserable, I know I'll get something I really, really want if I keep going, I'm physically capable of doing so and no harm will come to me if I do, but I'd rather give up and get some sleep?" And then actually make me give up, rather than have that thought and keep going?

I don't know, because nothing ever has. Not even this entire last year and a half, which as some of you know has been as tough as the Barkley but nowhere near as fun, and which often made me very seriously consider giving up. But I haven't.

So if I could, for all senses of could, I'd run the Barkley. I would probably spend the entire time limit wandering lost around the very first loop, like this guy:

Julian is a “virgin,” one of fifteen newbies who will do their damndest to finish a loop. He has managed to escape the designation of “sacrificial virgin,” officially applied to the virgin each year (usually the least experienced ultra-runner) whom Laz has deemed most likely to fail in a spectacular fashion—to get lost for so long, perhaps, that he manages to beat Dan Baglione’s course record for slowest pace. At the age of seventy-five, in 2006, Baglione managed two miles in thirty-two hours. Something to do with an unscrewed flashlight cap, an unexpected creek.

That is great. It's such a magnificent failure that it loops around into success. He may have only got two miles, but he kept at it for thirty-two hours. I respect the hell out of that.

I think I could match that level of sheer stubbornness.

If that's true, I'd like to know it. I'd like to find out if it is true. And I like to do difficult things because they're difficult as long as they're also in some weird sense fun, and unlike, say, climbing Mount Everest, the Barkley sounds both extraordinarily difficult and fun for certain weird values of fun that include most of it being painful and miserable. (I don't know if there are two groups of people, those who do difficult things because they're difficult and those who don't, but there are definitely two groups of people, those for whom the last clause of that sentence makes sense and those for whom it doesn't.)

So here is what I ask you: if you could (assume that for all senses of could, you at least could have gotten in and had some sort of shot) would you do the Barkley? Why or why not?

If you wouldn't have done that specifically, is there some specific difficult thing - climbing a mountain, doing boot camp, taking the bar exam - that you haven't done or couldn't do in real life, but have imagined doing? What is it? Would you do it if you could? Why?
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-01-19 01:57 pm

Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer

A friend of mine once had a very lavish birthday party for which she hired a professional magician. I was a little skeptical, as I have never much enjoyed stage magic. It usually strikes me as a bit cheesy or dull, not to mention repetitive. Once you've seen one card guessed and one thing vanished, you've seen the whole show; the rest is just variations.

This guy, whose name I forget but will ETA in if I figure it out, was different. His tricks were still variations on tricks I'd seen before. But his performance was wonderful and his persona was like nothing I'd seen before. It was all based on understatement and faith in the audience to appreciate the artistry of competence and skill.

He didn't make dumb jokes or big promises. He wore a slightly old-school-looking dapper suit. He had beautiful hands and moved in the precise, no-motion-wasted, polished manner of a martial artist or open kitchen chef or Olympic gymnast. Every time he moved, you could see the thousands of hours he had to have spent doing and re-doing that exact movement until it looked effortless and was perfect. He embodied "in the moment."

I don't recall his exact tricks, though I do remember that they were clever and done with charm, sometimes funny (in an understated way), sometimes "how the hell did he do that?" We all gasped and laughed and were enchanted. But the main enchantment was watching an incredible craftsman at work. He didn't brag; he didn't have to. His skill was evident. He could have been a carpenter, and we'd have been just as blown away watching him join wood... perfectly. And that was his persona: the craftsman.

I don't think it was an accident that he was performing for a bunch of Hollywood professionals in Los Angeles, and that he also worked at the Magic Castle, which is where magicians go to see each other perform. Whatever else you can say about Hollywood, it appreciates the effort and difficulty of making things look effortless. It was the perfect match of performer and audience, and I don't know if he, or that persona anyway, would have worked elsewhere.

I realized then that stage magic isn't about the tricks at all. It's about the performer and the performance. And the audience. All else aside, that guy's "Watch me flick one finger perfectly" deal would have been literally impossible to do in a large arena. We were in a small room with the farthest person no more than 30 feet away from the front row. Any bigger, and you wouldn't have been able to see what made him great.

I told him afterward that he'd done the first magic show I'd enjoyed at all, and that I'd not only enjoyed it, I'd loved it. I tried to explain why; hopefully it made sense. He did seem sincerely pleased. In an understated way.

Hiding the Elephant makes a similar point about performance and audience vs. tricks. But the book is at least 50% about the tricks. It's nonfiction on American stage magicians and their tricks in the 1800s (Houdini’s time), written by a modern designer of magic illusions who is not a performer himself. Interesting perspective, mixed execution.

He says from the start that while he’ll explain how some tricks are done, he’s not going to spill secrets on anything that hasn’t been previously detailed in print, though some of his sources are not well-known. He does, however, detail some original research he did into how Houdini made an elephant vanish onstage— a trick which impressed other magicians more than the audience, as Houdini’s showmanship as an illusionist was lousy compared with his dramatic skills as an escape artist.

Each chapter begins with him discussing some concept of magic, often couched in autobiography, which leads in to his chapter on a specific historic magician. These intros are beautifully written and fascinating. The historical material is noticeably more dryly written and often quite technical. It turns out that most magic tricks of that era were indeed done with mirrors aided by elaborate stage tech. If you care about the details, he explains many of them with diagrams and careful explications of the physics, engineering, and math which create the illusions. I read a lot of the book thinking, “Mia Lee would love this.”

If the whole book was like the chapter intros, I would have loved it too. If there had been more focus on the magicians’ personalities and the cultural factors playing into stage magic, and less on technicalities, I would have liked it more. There was a reasonable amount on the former (Houdini comes across as a real jerk), enough so that some chapters were moderately juicy reading, but ultimately the book felt much more bloodless than I expected when I began.

I suspect there are histories of that era of stage magic I would like better, but I don’t know which they are. It isn’t a subject I have that much inherent interest in. On the other hand, it did inspire me to re-watch The Prestige, and that was every bit as good as I remembered.

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear
rachelmanija: Fucking new guy hates my favorite rabbit book (FNG Hates My Rabbit Book)
2017-01-16 12:38 pm

New stories by me

I participated in the [community profile] fandom_stocking gift exchange, and got a slew of lovely gifts, from icons to book reviews to links to beautiful things. Thank you again to everyone who gave me things! If any of that sounds nice, go check out the comments to my stocking and enjoy the pretty and the recs.

I also wrote two gift stories.

For Nenya Kanadka, I wrote a 2000 word original FF short story, The Pirate's Blessing. A space pirate seeks a very special blessing from the Goddess, and a priestess gets an unexpected blessing of her own. It is tagged
Space Pirates, Ritual Sex, and Holy Space Aikido, which should give you an idea of the tone. I hope it's as much fun to read as it was to write.

For Monanotlisa, I wrote a 400 word short based on Sarah Waters' Victorian lesbian Gothic Fingersmith. It's post-book and so spoilery, and I'm not sure if it makes sense if you haven't read the book, but if you have a thing for hands and gloves, and I know I do, you might like it anyway. Every now and then something just comes to me in a flash, whole, and this was one of them. It's also FF, but a totally different tone. First Page.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-01-16 11:13 am

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King

A little girl gets lost alone in the woods. But for better or worse, no one is ever really alone…

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered that when she was nine years old.

Sounds like Cujo, doesn’t it? Sometimes bad things happen and it’s nobody’s fault, just the way of the world. Sometimes all the courage and willpower in the world isn’t enough to save you.

And sometimes it is.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Along with the Dark Tower series, this unique little book was my favorite of the new-to-me King books I read this year. While it has a lot of aspects that I like about King in addition to tropes I like in general, it’s different from his other books I’ve read (much pithier, for one thing) and a bit sui generis overall.

If you read survival memoirs, you’ll notice that many real people who got lost in the wild, in addition to their suffering and fear and physical breakdown, also had some kind of transcendent or spiritual experience. In between periods of misery and despair, they came to understand themselves, the natural world, and some kind of greater force in a way which felt deeply and lastingly important to them, though many say that no attempt at description can convey what it was really like. King delves into this phenomenon, giving the book an atmosphere at once delicate and powerful, full of realistic and suspenseful wilderness details balanced with a satisfyingly ambiguous exploration of that which is inherently unknowable and indescribable.

Nine-year-old Trisha goes with her mother and older brother for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail. When she steps off the path for a pee break, she realizes that she’s fallen behind and tries to take a short cut to catch up with them. One easy-to-make mistake leads to another, and Trisha is soon lost in the woods. Very, very lost.

That’s the entire book: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary girl. But Trisha is extraordinary too, in the way that anyone may become if they hit the exact right— or wrong— circumstances to bring out their full potential, whether to do right or wrong or simply endure.

If you’ve been following my King reviews and thinking, “Man, these books sound interesting, but so dark! Does he ever write anything that wouldn’t traumatize me if I read it?” Unless you’re very sensitive to children in danger, this could be the one.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is way more emotionally realistic (and so harrowing) than something like Hatchet, but it’s more like that than it is like Carrie, and it’s a lot less traumatizing, to me anyway, than Julie of the Wolves. (No rape, no deaths of sympathic animals.) It’s a character and theme-driven adventure/survival novel with ambiguous fantasy elements and some scary moments, not a horror novel. There’s some snippets of Trisha’s family freaking out, but they get little page time. Trisha suffers, but she’s also very resilient. [If you just want to know if she survives, rot13.com for the answer: Vg’f n pybfr pnyy ohg fur qbrf, naq irel gevhzcunagyl ng gung.]

Trisha has no special woodsy knowledge. Brian from Hatchet she’s not. Very unusually for a wilderness survival novel with a child hero, Trisha doesn’t do anything that a smart and resourceful but untrained kid couldn’t plausibly have done. The average kid wouldn’t have survived as long as she did, but that’s just statistics. She doesn’t build her own snowshoes, start fires with flint, befriend wolves, or trap rabbits. She eats stuff she finds, she makes a primitive lean-to from fallen branches, and she walks. And walks. No matter how bad things get, she doesn’t stop.

She does it all with nothing but a little bit of food and water, plus her Walkman, which picks up the broadcast of a Red Sox game in which her favorite baseball player, Tom Gordon, is playing. As she gets more and more lost, and is forced to reach deeper and deeper into her mind and body and soul to survive, she calls upon others to help her out: her memories of her family and her parentally disapproved-of friend Pepsi Robichaud, who could only be considered a bad influence if you’re nine and sheltered, her crush and idol Tom Gordon, and various conceptions of God or Godlike forces.

As time goes on, Tom Gordon becomes Trisha’s imaginary companion, becoming more and more of a presence as she goes from simply needing him more to outright hallucinating from hunger and illness. So another of King’s perennial themes comes into play, the relationship of the fan to the fan-object, and how real and important it can be, for better or worse. (You do not need to know or care about baseball to read this book. I don’t. Technical details are minimal, and King tells you everything you need to know.)

But there are other things in the woods which Trisha didn’t call, except in the sense that she attracted them by being there and vulnerable. Maybe it’s whatever animal predator happens to be around. Maybe it’s a specific animal that’s tracking her. Or maybe it’s supernatural. This part of the story is exceptionally well-done and comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

Back to God, King’s perennial question of “Does he exist and if so, where is he and why does he let bad things happen?” is prominent in this book. While lost, Trisha considers and possibly encounters multiple concepts of God. One is the mainstream idea of an interventionist God, whom Tom Gordon petitions with a gesture during games; if that God answers an athlete’s prayers to win, will He answer Trisha’s to live? Another is the Subaudible, which Trisha’s father explained to her when she asked him if he believed in God:

"It had electric heat, that house. Do you remember how the baseboard units would hum, even when they weren't heating? Even in the summer?"

Trisha had shaken her head.

"That's because you got used to it, but take my word, Trish, that sound was always there. Even in a house where there aren't any baseboard heaters, there are noises. The fridges goes on and off. The pipes thunk. The floors creak. The traffic goes by outside. We hear those things all the time, so most of the time we don't hear them at all. They become... Subaudible.

“I don't believe in any actual thinking God that marks the fall of every bird in Australia or every bug in India, a God that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die— I don't want to believe in a God who would deliberately create bad people and then deliberately send them to roast in a hell He created— but I believe there has to be something.

“Yeah, something. Some kind of insensate force for the good.

“I think there's a force that keeps drunken teenagers— most drunken teenagers—
from crashing their cars when they're coming home from the senior prom or their first big rock concert. That keeps most planes from crashing even when something goes wrong. Not all, just most. Hey, the fact that no one's used a nuclear weapon on actual living people since 1945 suggests there has to be something on our side."

Much of the book interrogates the idea of a Subaudible, particularly the question of just how conscious it is and if we're our own Subaudible. It also introduces the idea that the Subaudible may have a less benevolent counterpart. This is the God of the Lost, which may be the thing (if there is a thing) stalking Trisha through the woods. If so, is it malevolent or simply dangerous? Is it another insensate force, or conscious and concrete?

What will determine Trisha’s fate? God and the Devil? The Subaudible and the God of the Lost? No supernatural forces at all, just human beings and nature and Trisha herself? Or some combination of those?

I normally find religion the most boring topic on Earth. I did not find it boring in this book. It comes up naturally, and it’s in the form of open questions rather than preaching. I excerpted the part about the Subaudible because it’s easier to quote than to summarize, not because it’s presented as the One Truth.

The prose, which swings easily from King’s usual not-quite-stream-of-consciousness interspersed with bits of omniscient narration to some passages of striking beauty, doesn’t try to imitate a child’s speech. But though the language is adult, the content of Trisha’s inner world did mostly feel convicingly nine-year-old. That’s an age when many kids are thinking about God and why bad things happen. I’ve had children that age talk to me unprompted about those issues in simple language but using pretty sophisticated ideas. The Subaudible isn’t Trisha’s idea, it’s her father’s, but I believed that once he told her about it, she’d keep on chewing over it.

Cut for spoilers. I would not read these if you might read the book; they spoil the climax, which is quite beautifully orchestrated. Read more... )
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-01-14 12:27 pm

West of January, by Dave Duncan

First off: great title.

I’m going to excerpt a bit from a review that liked it more than I did because the premise is so high-concept:

I was captivated by this book. Set on a world which revolves so slowly that everyone has to move steadily West in order to escape Dusk and Night, which is a devastating ice world, and avoiding High Summer, so hot it kills everything in its path, West of January is highly original and superbly written. Not only is the world divided into Months and Days, each a particular climate steadily moving west, but the inhabitants are very segregated, each following the same patterns every cycle, never learning from the previous one (that often ends in disaster) because they do not pass their knowledge down.

Vernier is a lost colony on a planet whose rotation is almost the same speed as its revolution, so the habitable zones constantly but slowly move across the planet. So people can be born in the grasslands of Tuesday, north of September, and be three months old when they die of old age. I had a little trouble wrapping my head around this. However, Duncan obviously had it very clear in his head. There’s diagrams and everything. On that level, it’s pretty neat in an old-school, cool idea sf way.

The book starts out very strong, with the protagonist growing up in a weird, vividly depicted herdspeople society. Then he leaves home and it becomes a picaresque, with him visiting a whole bunch of societies which are wildly different from each other. I would have liked this, but there were a couple problems.

One was that the coolest part of the concept got a bit lost in the flurry of “and here’s the sea-people! And the jungle people! And the original settler people!” That’s fine, but there could have been any reason for that; I wanted more of the implications of the 200-year days.

The other was sex. So much sex. Knobil goes somewhere, and every woman in sight flings herself on him. I think Duncan was consciously imitating a classic picaresque form where this sort of thing happens, but it got so irritating. (The only reason I think this is conscious in any way rather than just “because a lot of guys write that” is that I’ve read other books by him and it’s the sort of thing he’d do. That being said, ditto, it’s probably also because a lot of guys write that.) Anyway, it got increasingly boring and ridiculous. A lot of the women were doing it because they wanted some genetic diversity rather than because he was hot, but still.

Finally, the whole book trailed out as it went along, ending in a fizzle. I was really grabbed by it when I started, but ended up putting it down for weeks at some point in the middle. Usually I read his books in one sitting (or two days, etc, depending on interruptions).

Dave Duncan writes sf and fantasy which is pulpy in tone but often driven by genuinely original concepts which are very carefully thought out and then explored in all their implications. For instance, the “A Man of his Word” series has one of the more unique magic systems I’ve encountered in fantasy – it’s word-based magic, but the specific type is one I’ve never seen before or since – and rather than just rest on those laurels, Duncan proceeds to spend a lot of the series taking the concept to unexpected places. His books have plain prose and somewhat basic characterization, which is probably why no one ever mentions him when they’re talking about writers of ideas, but he really is one. He does tend to pop up in discussions of underrated writers, so there is that.

Obviously, West of January is not one of his better books. It looks like an early work that was recently re-issued, so that might explain some things. I’m still pleased to have grabbed a bunch of his books for cheap and for Tool of Satan to have mailed me hard copies of others, and will report on them as I get to them. He’s a genuinely interesting writer and worth reading if you like his kind of thing, which at his best is quirky, surprisingly intelligent takes on pulp sf and fantasy tropes. I like that kind of thing. If you do too, I suggest The Cursed, which has a very odd/cool take on curse-or-blessing (90% curse) powers in a medieval setting; there are some mild "dude wrote this" gender issues but on the other hand the protagonist is a pretty awesome middle-aged female innkeeper. For an epic fantasy series, Magic Casement (A Man of His Word Book 1) is also interesting/quirky, as is the "King's Swords" series (more small-scale, more fighting and politicking, less magic) and-- hey, this is 99 cents today!-- The Reluctant Swordsman (The Seventh Sword Book 1). I have not read the latter but I've been recced it frequently. Interesting premise for sure.

West of January
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-01-10 08:38 am

Carrie, by Stephen King

King’s famous/infamous first novel. Most of you probably know the gist of it whether you’ve read it (or seen the movie) or not— it’s just that iconic— and it doesn’t matter if I spoil it in outline because King also tells/teases you with what happened right from the get-go. But if you don’t, it goes like this:

Carrie, who is secretly telekinetic, is raised in near-isolation by her abusive, mentally ill mom, a batshit fundamentalist whose beliefs bear only the most tenuous relationship to any actual religion. Carrie is not taught of the existence of menstruation because all things bodily are the Devil’s handiwork, and panics when she gets her period in the girls’ locker room shower. Because teenagers can be fucking monsters, she’s pelted with tampons by the other girls, who smell blood in the water in more ways than one.

Sue Snell, a girl who feels guilty over failing to stop the bullying, joins forces with some other teenagers to try to give Carrie a nice prom. Unfortunately, the hateful bully contingent also has plans for Carrie, and also at the prom. Let’s just say that Carrie doesn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done at that age and under those circumstances if I could’ve killed people with my brain.

I first read this book when I was a bullied teenager, so I was an ideal audience in one sense. However, it was neither the first book I read by King nor the one that made me go on to read more. (Those were The Stand, followed by Firestarter.) I liked it but I didn’t love it, which is still my feeling about it now though probably not for the same reasons.

At the time, though I identified with Carrie’s situation, I didn’t identify with her as a person. She’s sad and plodding and downtrodden and not all that bright; none of what happens to her is her fault, but in addition to circumstances caused by others (like her terrible clothes) her personality gives off an aura of victimhood that makes the bullies decide to pick on her rather than on someone else. (King is very, very clear about that part: bullies gonna bully. If Carrie hadn’t been there, they would have just selected a different target.) To be clear, I don’t mean that she’s insufficiently awesome for me to identify with, just that her flaws aren’t my flaws.

(I confess: when our ages matched, I found an unsettling amount to identify with in Harold Emery Lauder. I mean. His goddamn name is only one syllable off mine, and it has almost the same metrical emphasis. That’s not exactly a coincidence. In both cases, it was selected by a teenage writer because it’s unique, the meter makes it memorable, and it just sounds like a writer’s name. King really had my number. But that’s not a coincidence, either: name aside, it was his number, too.)

What’s most remembered about Carrie are the set-piece scenes. The shower and the prom scene are iconic for a reason, but there’s quite a few in the book that have that same extraordinary vividness of emotion and image. They’re bizarre and singular in terms of events (so you recall them) and depicted with perfectly selected details, like the sort of nightmare you wake up from to lie sweating and telling yourself “It’s not real, it’s not real,” and dread having again for the rest of your life.

The other notable element is the blistering, raw, absolutely dead-on portrayal of what it feels like to be a bullied teenager. And also what it feels like to be any teenager in the sort of world I was a teenager in, which I hope to God is less common nowadays, when high school was their society, adults did not give a fuck, and it didn’t make much of a difference that the majority of the teenagers were perfectly decent people, if self-centered in a developmentally appropriate way, because God help you if the bullies close their eyes, spin around, and come to a stop with their finger pointed at you. Tag, you’re it. Your life will now be hell for the next four years.

Sue Snell is a good person. So is her boyfriend. It almost saves the day. But, as in Cujo, there are other forces at work, though here it’s human factors rather than chance or fate. Bullies gonna bully, and Carrie is emotionally fragile, primed to snap by her abusive mother, and in an act of agency with truly bad timing, she’s been practicing her power. The kerosene was already pooling on the floor, but some assholes just had to toss in a match.

Finally, Carrie is not spectacularly but still quite nicely structured, partly in a way that King was later to make one of his trademarks (multiple plotlines coming together into a dramatic unified climax) and partly in one that I don’t think he ever did on that scale again, which was to construct the book largely out of “found materials,” like newspaper articles, court transcripts, interviews, etc. The latter is interesting but distancing, fine but not noticeably better than what a lot of competent writers could do. The present-day sequences are way more impressive and have King’s specific voice.

A lot of what makes King a great writer was there right from the start: the well-crafted structure, the storytelling, the memorable scenes and images, the way with character and place, the trainwreck you see coming, the sympathy with his characters even as you know that a lot of them are not going to make it, and the moral force.

Even more interestingly to me as a writer, it shows how he overall had the sense to build on his strengths rather than his weaknesses in subsequent books. The found materials? Only ever used again in small, judicious doses. But the idea that he could do odd things with structure and that he should feel free to experiment and write each book in the way he thought suited it? That stuck. And most of all, the willingness to just go there with whatever outrageous, taboo, gross, or “you can’t write that” image that popped into his mind. Forty years later, those girls throwing tampons at Carrie still feels dangerous. If he’d never written it and someone submitted it now, there’s an excellent chance they’d get the exact same “what the everlasting fuck am I reading?” reaction.

King wasn’t the writer who taught me the value of just going there (Harlan Ellison did that) but it’s a good lesson to learn. Maybe the best. You don’t have to be gross or horrifying or shocking. You just have to be true to your self. We all have an inner voice and outer critics saying, “This is too revealing, too embarrassing, too weird, too risky; if I write it people will know the inside of my head looks like that.” But the insides of all of our heads are full of weird, embarrassing, scary stuff. It’s powerful stuff, too.

Maybe it’s tampons and a bucket of pig’s blood. Maybe it’s walking trees and a golden ring. Maybe it’s you and a gun and a man on your back. Whatever it is, it’s the real deal. Go there.

Carrie
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-01-09 10:59 am

Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich (published as Smile or Die in the UK)

Barbara Ehrenreich rips toxic positivity a well-deserved new one in this much-needed but unfortunately poorly organized book surveying the origins, bizarre applications, and downside of the American obsession with positive thinking.

The first chapter is about how her diagnosis with breast cancer lands her in a strange new world of enforced positivity and a weird, mutant, and extremely pink version of feminist femininity.

She clearly traces the journey from breast cancer being an unspeakable and hidden doom to how genuinely needed efforts to get it more funding and make it seem less of a shameful death sentence went off-kilter in some very strange ways. For instance, support groups (needed; very helpful to many women) get so obsessed with the idea that positivity is essential to survival that they refuse to allow women to express any negative emotions, especially anger, for fear that they will literally kill them; one of Ehrenreich's ends up ostracizing a dying woman for being angry and depressed.

As Ehrenreich points out, actual research on the effect of positive thinking on illness outcomes is complicated at best. Just to start with, many studies don't actually say what people think they say, and "positive thinking" is extremely hard to measure. And then there's the whole issue of correlation vs. causation: the patients who were more positive might have felt more positive because their illness was less severe, they had better medical support, etc, while the more negative patients might have had worse symptoms, couldn't tolerate the treatment, etc. So it might not be that positive thinking causes better outcomes, but rather that people who were going to have better outcomes anyway are more likely to be positive. And so forth.

And even if positive thinking really does make it that fraction more likely that you'll live longer (even the best-crafted studies don't show large differences), can positivity be forced? If it works at all (it may not) does it work if it's forced, or does it have to be sincere? Does telling people they need to smile or they'll die produce the sincere happiness that's supposedly needed. Or is it more healthy to feel and express the emotions you sincerely feel, even if they're not positive?

And how come, out of all the illness-based positivity hammering, it comes down hardest on a disease primarily affecting women? Could it be that "smile, smile, smile, look on the bright side, use the opportunity to bond with your loved ones, and whatever you do, don't be angry" is a message that American women get anyway?

Ehrenreich's righteous fury burns through this chapter, fueling a killer takedown of bad science, not-actually-feminism, and cruelty disguised as kindness. It was brilliant and if she'd written the whole book on that, it would have been stunning. Also, there is definitely enough material for a book's worth.

The rest of the book unfortunately leaves the subject of breast cancer and, in most cases, illness behind to first explore a possible root cause of the whole positivity movement in the US, then devote a chapter each to various idiotic and rage-making applications. It was interesting but didn't live up to the beginning. Unless I missed it, the US is really overdue for a current version of something like Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America