Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fantastic Storyteller: Patricia A. McKillip

If you have never read anything by Patricia McKillip, starting with The Forgotten Beasts of Eld would offer you a wonderful introduction. The book won the World Fantasy Award in 1975. The heroine is Sybel, a woman of power, based on her skill with magic. She keeps at her side such fabulous creatures as the Liralen, the Lyon Gules, and Ter the Falcon. Living remotely on a mountain, she does not seek to meddle in the affairs of others, but a child brought to her door (Tam) by Coren of Sirle changes the dynamics of her existence. Eventually, she is ensnared by her love for Tam and the power struggle between Coren and the great king, Drede. Ultimately she calls to her side a dark creature, one that is part nightmare. The story unfolds from there. As one of McKillip's early works, her style here is very simple and her sentences short and clear, unlike more recent works like The Book of Atrix Wolf or the award-winning Ombria in Shadow. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a wonderful example of high fantasy.

I read this book for the first time when I was in my early 'twenties and still very open to tales of enchantment. It was very powerful for me at that point in my life because it articulated for me the idea, the observation, that women may exercise power from a different set of priorities than those used by men. (That may not strike you as a new idea but back in the women's movement of the '70's, it required greater emphasis.) What surprised me as I re-read Beasts in the mindset of a distracted, middle-aged adult was how rapidly I was caught again by McKillip's spell-binding story. It was the tone of the story, her language. An example would be something like this extract:

He nodded, the smile tugging deeper at his mouth. "The seventh son of Lord Steth of Sirle, my grandfather, had seven sons and I am his youngest. Perhaps that is why I hear things the trees tell as they whisper at moonrise, or the growing corn tells, or the birds at twilight. I have good ears. I heard the silence of your white walls even in the noisy halls at Sirle."

The people of Sybel's world do not quite sound like the people I encounter in this world. As Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her 1976 essay, From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, successful fantasy requires a recognition in written dialogue and tone that the world of Faery is distinct from this world. High fantasy -- that form of fiction that draws us from this world into the world of Faery -- is not easy to create. The real thing touches the numinous imagination, at the deepest part of the human spirit and soul. It is wonderful that McKillip consistently manages to convey that strangeness of Faery while still creating characters with whom we feel kinship. Like LeGuin, McKillip holds that to know the name of a living creature yields power over that creature.

If you are looking for something to read as part of Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge, keep this title in the back of your mind. It's sold nowadays as Young Adult Lit, but like the very best fantasy, it is appropriate for adults as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Heaven knows that the current state of the economy offers little joy, but this literally had me rolling on the floor laughing. Take your time and go through the archives!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Interesting Tidbits From My Inbox

Things that floated through my inbox at work that I think you'll find interesting:

Just some fodder for thought.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wahoo! Woot! and Other Joyful Noises (Updated)

Carl is doing another Once Upon A Time challenge. I missed participation in last year's and I'm not missing this one!

Don't know which Quest I will pick as yet, but I am looking forward to reading some Patricia McKillip (specifically, Alphabet of Thorn). If you are looking for a recommendation, I can heartily push Guy Gavriel Kaye on you (Lions of Al-Rassan). For that matter, you might want to look at the Ozark Trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin.

I'd write more, but I'm trying to catch up on visits to other people's blogs this evening...

Update: My titles for Quest the First (for the moment) appear below:

  1. Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip
  2. Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture by Jack Zipes
  3. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights - John Steinbeck
  4. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
  5. The House of Arden by E. Nesbit
  6. D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D'Aulaire
I'm still making up my mind as to whether I want to do #5 or #6. Didi uses D'Aulaire in her classroom, so I have to think it's a worthwhile read.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

In A Fit of Austen

About two weeks ago, wanting something pleasant and non-violent on the television as background noise, I put on Mansfield Park. Not the Patricia Rozema version of 1999 or the IDC version that aired in the States during the past two months, but the older BBC dramatization of the novel, dating from 1983, which accurately delivers the storyline crafted by Jane Austen. In that adaptation, Aunt Norris is indeed self-serving and self-absorbed, and Fanny is exasperatingly self-effacing.

What this has led to has been a peculiar state of mental distraction. I am driven to seek out Jane Austen. Blogs, books, DVDs, social networking sites -- each has contributed to the fit. I started out reading a thread on LibraryThing which led me to this blog, which led me to this woman, who created millinery for a few of the dramatizations, then on to the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) where I learn that the 2009 JASNA Annual Meeting will be held in Philadelphia!

Suddenly, my mind is feverishly tossing out ideas, wondering whether I might produce an academic paper on the topic of sibling relationships in Mansfield Park of a quality that would get me on the JASNA program. There are the sisters, Maria and Julia, who compete with each other for Henry Crawford's attention, a situation certain to create friction. There are the Crawfords themselves, Mary and Henry. Mary and Henry share certain confidences with regard to their dealings with the Bertrams which suggests a certain fond tolerance of one another. There are the Bertram brothers, Tom and Edmund. Tom is profligate while Edmund tends to conservative ways, another situation rife with conflict. Finally, there are Fanny and her brother, William. (There's no clear reason given for why Fanny is so attached to William, but she ends up enduring a great deal from Henry Crawford on his behalf.) I imagine myself offering my thoughts on Fanny Price and William to an audience of eager Janeites. This is an OPPORTUNITY!

Okay. Reality check. (For one thing, there's an obligation to join the society even to participate as an attendee at the annual meeting. It's not that expensive to join, but it does imply a serious level of commitment to Austen, rather than my own dilettante attitude.)

At the same time, I've been digesting Mansfield Park for years now without ever publicly expressing my feelings on the subject of Fanny Price. She's something of a controversial figure as you know if you've ever spent time over at the Republic of Pemberley. (See the reference to the "Fanny Wars" here.) Is Fanny Price an insufferable, self-righteous little prig? Or is she actually a frail, somewhat crushed female, plain and repressed, whose triumph is greatest when the hero realizes the superiority of her mind and scope of her character in comparison with that of the worldly Mary Crawford?

Each time I have read Mansfield Park, I have been struck by Austen's characterization as well as her skill in choosing how to reveal personalities. I have always assumed that Austen knew readers might shy away from Fanny's self-effacing nature. Fanny isn't an ideal heroine, by any stretch, yet Austen shows us that as quiet and despised as Fanny may be, she has the strength of character that those around her have not developed. This time around as I re-read the novel, I was struck by the scene of Mary Crawford offering Fanny a chain to use with Henry's gift of a cross. Mary seems sincerely to extend a generosity to Fanny, in part as a kindness towards pleasing her brother and in part because it is a small thing to her to share with Fanny something that Mary has in abundance. She sees Fanny's reluctance in accepting the jewelry and laughs good-naturedly at the scrupulousness of Fanny's conscience. Fanny is horrified that Mary would so casually give to her a necklace that Mary received from her brother; we are left to suppose that Fanny would never part with a present that William had given her. Mary isn't in the least disturbed by the idea of offering it, but Fanny, we assume, can't imagine that evidence of a brother's regard would be given to her so lightly. There's a good case for the scene's use as an indication of each woman's mindset regarding a brother and his gift. In both instances, the cross William gives his sister and the chain Henry gives his, the value associated with an article of jewelry is a way of revealing how each woman regards the familial bond.

I don't want to go into more detail. Thanks to good friends who teach at the college level, I am ruefully conscious of some idiot student googling the point and turning it in for a grade, but the joy of reading is that one is taken with an idea (in the midst of boring, hum-drum daily life) and turns it over and plays with it. Why else read?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Humorous Column (San Francisco Chronicle)

Chortle, chuckle, snark

Although I think the cats would invariably want to be on the wrong side of the door. You'd never get to drink your coffee in peace.

More later.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Binu and the Great Wall [Review]

Title: Binu and the Great Wall (publisher's page)

Author: Su Tong

Copyright: 2007, Canongate, Edinburgh (Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-84195-904-7)

Length: 291 pages

Genre: Fiction/Part of the Canongate Myth Series

Summary: Binu discovers that her husband, Wan Qiliang , has been drafted into the service of the Emperor in building the Great Wall of China. But he has been taken so abruptly -- working bare-chested in the forest -- that he has no warm clothing for the winter. Binu sees her duty as a wife as traveling to the farthest reaches of the kingdom to bring Wan Qiliang his winter coat. The other village wives whose spouses have also been taken are unwilling to travel with her so Binu sets off alone. Her chief characteristic throughout the course of this journey is tenacity, her stoicism in facing the harsh judgments of others as she makes her way towards the Great Swallow Mountain. Those others, who offer her no sympathy, include a carter with no hands who drives his team with his feet, a herd of Deer-boys, even the great General Jianyang who can hear the sound of Binu's weeping from a great distance. She does have one mystic guide with her, a blind frog who retreats and then returns to support her. But it is critical to the point of the book to stress that Binu is isolated and alone, a person of no status, an orphan without family to intercede, a woman entirely vulnerable to every indignity that is part of the human experience.

The writing style of this tale contains both poetic imagery and bleak events. The presence of Death in this story is as much a constant as the blind frog. Binu and the Great Wall is not told as a happy fairy tale the way that the story of Meng Jiang is frequently told. (See this version sanitized for Western audiences.) Su Tong's novel, translated by Howard Goldblatt, has points that are utterly bleak but still pays homage to the capacity of the ordinary person to change the direction of the powerful.

Extract: The frog stayed put, a single tear on its face bringing a white light into the darkness. Binu turned away to avoid looking at that tear. Sorrow had lost its power on this night; a woman who did not cry had already shed all the tears she had, and the tears of the frog were now someone else's burden. Neither could get a reaction from the other. So a long confrontation between a pair of one-time traveling companions developed at the river bend, and an air of antagonism turned the atmosphere icy. Even the water flowing in the moonlight gasped tensely.

Also Relevant: The story on which Binu and The Great Wall is based is well-known in China. The softened version (linked above) is re-told in a fashion suitable for children; other versions (like this one) are told in the context of a historical period in Chinese history. I read Binu without any foreknowledge of the story of Meng Jiang's tears; while I recognized occasional flashes of dry humor in the writing, the novel still struck me as a fairly serious story making a point about the ways a repressed, saddened citizenry may erupt under the rule of bureaucracy. Binu consistently adheres to her own beliefs of appropriate behavior even though the society around criticizes harshly her behavior. As she moves in a symbolic journey from a simple village in the South to the more complex and unfamiliar urban society in the North, Binu is incapable of adopting survival mechanisms that could ease her living. Her single-minded intent to provide the necessities needed by her husband in winter weather is laughable to those with some level of power or control. She obviously cannot succeed and yet, inexplicably, her individual devotion to a perceived duty is what triggers great change. Thus, Binu and the Great Wall is peculiarly hopeful even as it closes without romanticism or traditional "happy ending".

I found this installment to the Canongate Myth series to be worthwhile reading and certainly thought- provoking. I reviewed Karen Armstrong's introductory volume to the full series here and subsequently reviewed Lion's Honey, another volume in the series, here. So far, I think this is my favorite.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hands (and Shopping Bags) Across The Water

Apparently, (and I'm basing this strictly on my readings of other people's blogs), there is a common cause for concern in both the US and the UK with regard to those wretched little plastic bags they hand out in grocery stores. You know, the ones that replaced the sound, solid brown paper bags that groceries *used* to be carried in. When I was a girl, the practice was to recycle the brown paper bags by making them into book covers for school, but there's really very little to be done with those plastic things that split before you've even gotten the full distance between the store front and your car.

Books, Mud and Compost points out that Marks and Spencer will be charging customers 5p per carrier bag in the interests of encouraging consumers to bring their own bags to the grocery store. This is apparently in the wake of the Prime Minister issuing warnings as to the consequences of continuing use of such polythene bags (via Mutterings & Meanderings). The Libertarians in the UK are really up in arms on this one.

On this side of the pond, bags are an object of interest as well in terms of re-use. Of course, Americans may be the ultimate consumer shopping bag population (see this NYTimes article that ran last December). And someone must be making a killing over here on Amazon.

My husband and I caved in yesterday morning when we went to the local Acme to do our food shopping. Food-wise, it was a light week and there, right by the cash registers, was a practical display of the new style carrier bag currently being pushed by the U.S. food industry. So we picked up two of them in which to carry home our $50 worth of food. Ours are Acme-trademark-blue and they're made of some peculiar fiber that is weird to the touch but ostensibly less threatening to the environment. I rather suspect that, over the long-term, I will prefer the canvas boat totes sold by LLBean for moving this kind of stuff around. The downside of the canvas is that those, properly loaded, strain my elbow joints. The re-usable Acme bags don't cost as much -- just a dollar a pop -- but I'll likely need to buy 2 or 3 more of them to carry away all my usual groceries. And my elbows will still ache.

They charged me for gift boxes this past Christmas at places like Sears, which is another harbinger of the future. I have already adapted to recycling various sturdy boxes and cloth gift bags for use at Christmas, as that makes sense to me. (I don't mind putting Hallmark out of business if that is deemed to be an economic or environmental necessity.) The carrier bag situation may also be more sensible. But I remember the energy crisis of the '70's and it irritated me no end last summer when everyone was fretting over the price of gas because no one seems willing to adopt the obvious solution of gas rationing or some other method of cutting down on our consumption. The individual simply ended up paying more for gas, even people like me in our itty-bitty Saturn. All I know is that it always costs me money when someone else decides that society as a whole should be environmentally conscious. I understand why it works that way, but jeez louise....

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Random Acts of Faith and Kindness

I spent several hours re-reading Cranford this afternoon. What occurred to me (as I read the early chapters) is that Cranford is really about the small domestic kindnesses that the inhabitants extend one to the other within the community. It's about having faith in the goodness of our neighbors, connecting with those neighbors as a form of defense against change introduced by those who are outside the community. We tend to understand the small economies practiced by our friends and pardon them on some level as lovable eccentricities , even if we might criticize or grumble over similar behavior in a stranger. We might even resent anyone having the temerity to point out the eccentricities of our friends.

I think Gaskell's point is that we should support such implicit networks of caring with tactfulness when we see small signs of the difficulties that our neighbor might be having and make whatever small shifts may be possible in our behavior to accommodate another's dignity. I don't mean to make it sound insipid or cliched, but Cranford advocates a certain gentleness in our dealings with others.

There's no doubt that I would have had issues with the sanitary conditions of the 19th century, but I really think I would have liked the people.