Thursday, January 16, 2014

Altered readings of Persuasion, and a surprising connection

Persuasion was my first read of 2014, mostly because it was the subject of my monthly book club. This marked my third book club attendance, and the first where I found my perceptions of the book very much changed.

I went into the meeting with a relatively simplistic view: Anne the clear-eyed heroine stands in for the voice of Austen who is presenting a coherent social critique of this silly class system.  The characters are set pieces and the fall in Lyme is clearly contrived, and all of this is because Austen just wants to get everyone together and contrast the productive navy with the wastrels that are the gentry.  It's pretty easy to pluck out examples that support this narrative, so I was a bit surprised that one of the first questions at book club was exactly about this: does there seem to be a coherent social critique here, or specific humorous episodes?

The more I think about this, and about the critiques that came up at book club, the more suspicious I am of my first reading that there's a single overarching critique in Persuasion. On further discussion, I found myself more drawn to a reading that sees various episodes tracking different themes including -

  • The value of the Navy (and the Navy's ability to reveal true character)
  • The superficial and ridiculous values of the gentry
  • The disconnect between worldly fortunes and internal happiness
  • The relative importance of happiness, financial security, and status in marriage
  • The characteristics of an ideal wife
Smarter people than I have spent a lot more time thinking about and researching Persuasion.  I'm sure that there are other themes to be picked out of the text, and perhaps other overarching narratives I've missed.  I'd recommend reading Persuasion, and also discussing it or reading critiques.

What interested me about my initial reading of Persuasion compared to my reading after the discussion is that my reading essentially changed from an overarching single narrative with occasional tangents to a series of interrelated set pieces and characters/caricatures combining entertainment, insightful social commentary, and somewhat contrived plot elements.  So basically Americanah.  As mentioned in my first post on Americanah, I just don't know how to read this.  Individual scenes and chapters may stand or fall on their own (one of the members of book club confessed that he had a hard time with the opening of Persuasion, while I found the opening some of the most charming & delightful writing I've encountered recently), but ideally they're probably more than the sum of their parts.  (The contrast in Americanah between whites who view Africa as an interchangeable country and the the African immigrants who can both acknowledge the different countries and also find a common bond in their status on the margins of society springs to mind).  

When preparing for book club, I asked my wife what she thought was worth talking about in Persuasion.  One of her answers was "Who is a modern writer comparable to Austen?"  I hadn't expected to be answering "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie", but maybe?  (Or maybe I still don't understand the conventions of novels.  That's always the thought that springs to my mind as I stretch my reading muscles.)

There's no conclusion here.  If you've got resources to point me towards conventions of the modern literary novel, I'd certainly love to see them.  Similarly, if you've got thoughts about how to read long fiction using models other than episodic vs. overarching narrative structures, I'd love to hear those as well.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Books on my shelf: The Annotated Chronicles

For "Books on my shelf" I'm just going to grab a book and write about it for 15 minutes or so.

"Dragonlance: The Annotated Chronicles" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Dragonlance wasn't the first Fantasy series I read, but I must have been junior high or previous, so early.  I still remember meeting Tanis and Flint on the road so many years ago, and being impressed by these two old comrades taking up a position back to back to ward themselves from dangers.  Recognizing Raistlin's sleep spell (and that it signified he wasn't all that powerful), and the shock of draconian a who turned to stone and then slid into dust.

Later the adventures with the green dragon, the poem of the rescue from the White dragon, Sturm on the wall, and Raistlin's terrifying power.  The books slipped away at some point , so I snatched up Weis and Hickman's Annotated Chronicles hoping to rediscover some of the magic.

And while I did, I also discovered what happens when the curtain is pulled back.  Their laughter at the company all beginning in the bar together, in particular, took a bit of the shine off the Chronicles, but I think it also made me a more critical reader.

Page 50:
The companions are in the bar, their adventure incited, and Sturm the paladin does not wish to flee this growing mob.  Margaret Weis points out one if her favorite lines. "Run? From this rabble?"  Tracy point out the Tanis' solution was cribbed from a Paladin he used to run in a campaign: we must flee to protect the lady!

Would I recommend it?
Maybe. If you're a Dragonlance fan.  Otherwise there's almost certainly something better than this to read in the Fantasy genre.  It's not even really a good example of "how to make a novel out of your campaign" (though it's clearly AN example), but as I also say of Walt Whitman, there's some virtue to having done something first.

Will it stay on my shelf?
Oh yes.  The shelf's already been purged a lot by various moves, so most books here have earned a spot, but the Annotated Chronicles aren't going anywhere.  I have a lot of nostalgic attachment to this book.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Achievement Unlocked: Minion (Dining Table edition)

Tadpole turns three in two months.  Every once in a while we get to celebrate various life skills coming together (aka: outsourcing tasks, or training the minion).  Most recently, we've had real progress at the dining table.

Eating is still a challenge, but Tadpole can generally be relied on to bring napkins and utensils to the table, and carry over drinks, plates and bowls (with two hands and minimal spilling!) when asked.  She asks to be excused before leaving the table (usually) and clears dishes to either the counter or dishwasher as requested. She'll also generally take napkins down to the laundry.

We had guests over this weekend, and while Tadpole was salivating over the delicious cupcakes they brought, she brought cupcakes to everyone else first before taking her own over.

She's not-yet-three, so she's hardly ready to wait tables at Downton Abbey, but over the past few days and weeks a lot of skills like careful carrying, polite table manners, and an increased understanding of where everything in out kitchen is have all come together.  I love getting to celebrate these moments! (Previous non-blogged Achievement Unlocked: Minion editions include: unloading the laundry basket, unloading the dishwasher, making espresso for mommy and daddy, watering the Christmas tree/plants, and stirring risotto)

Monday, January 6, 2014

First reactions to Americanah

I'm about 1/4 of the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Americanah" and so far it is mostly teaching me how conditioned I am to read science fiction/fantasy.  I simply don't know how to read literary fiction the way I know how to read SFF, which makes it difficult to judge my reactions to "Americanah".  For comparison, it was about 3/4 of the way through "Wolf Hall", that I realized I needed to refresh my memory of "Man For All Seasons" and see "Wolf Hall" through that lens before it the pieces really clicked for me.

For SFF, the placeholders are generally clear.  Where are the protagonists? What goals have they been set in motion towards? Does the author want to evoke (or satiate) something akin to Tolkien's childhood "I desired Dragons with a profound desire"?, or cast some particular aspect of our society in a new light as with Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness"?  Perhaps there is simply something so compelling about the world being created (I was so swept away by Nahadoth and Sieh in N. K. Jemisin's "100 Thousand Kingdoms" that I can't even remember much of the series), or a particular system of magic and way of interacting with the world, a la Brandon Sanderson and his rules of magic.  For hard SFF, the story is often compelling as people set out to explore, or come in contact with, well defined physical laws ("The Cold Equations1may be one of the most heartbreaking short stories I've ever read).  The point is, I know where I'm going with SFF.  I can find my protagonists, see their destination, and generally can tell whether I'm supposed to pay attention to where they're going & how they get there, or just enjoy the scenery along the way.

With literary fiction, my signposts don't work.  A quarter of the way through "Americanah", I end each chapter both delighted and feeling let down.  I can't connect with the protagonist at all - I don't feel any understanding of her thought process (or such self-awareness from her), nor does she seem to have particular agency as she flits between Nigeria and the United States.  Of course the story, told in flashbacks, has barely reached her college years - I don't know that I had much self-awareness or agency at that point either.

Each chapter does beautifully crystallize some universal human experience, while remaining focused on the particular individuals in the story.  Adichie's craft shows through, and I am at turns comforted by the familiar and jarred by the unfamiliar in the midst of this universal coming of age story.  It's baffling, and I'm still waiting to find out where I'm going, or why I want to get there.

1 Link here to The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which includes The Cold Equations because it has other good stories. The eponymous Godwin collection displays some disgusting gender attitudes.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

5 Things

Being a stay-at-home/work-at-home dad with an almost 3-year old is pretty awesome.  It's also exhausting, emotionally draining, and often frustrating.  With our schedule disrupted by the holidays (hard enough for me, never mind a preschooler), I've had more of the latter moments than the former.

But today we had a friend over and the two of them alternated putting a duplo box on their head, sneezing so the box fell off, and laughing hysterically.  It was basically all of the wonderfulness of parenting, and I just reveled in it.  Inspired by that, here are a few recent pictures capturing other wonderful moments with Tadpole.

Still Life with Doll, Dragon, and White Nana. (Artist - Tadpole)

Snowy? In Chicago? Fortunately I have a minion ... I mean helper!

My uncle sent some bulbs as a Christmas present, and Tadpole has been watering them faithfully.  A few days ago, she began exclaiming:
"The plants! The plants! What's that in the plants?"
It quickly became apparent that the not-green part was a little bit baffling, and absolutely fascinating.
Again, artist: Tadpole.

Mommy and Tadpole made molasses cookies recently.  They turned out OK :)

Watching "Singin' In The Rain".  By the end of the night she was singing the refrain.

I'm incredibly lucky to get to spend so much time with my daughter.  I don't remember to remind myself why often enough.

Friday, January 3, 2014

2014 Reading Goals

I tweeted out some reading goals for 2014 a few nights ago, but thought I'd memorialize them here as well.
That's a very achievable list that stretches me in places.  I've already had one friend on Twitter suggest other possibilities for the "In Translation" category.  

I stuck a goal of 50 books into Goodreads this year, mostly to make myself actually track how much reading I'm doing, since I don't generally do that.  We'll see how that goes.

I'll have non-reading goals in the future, but Child #1 (codename Tadpole) starts a new school in January and turns 3 in March.  By then we expect to have welcomed Child #2 (codename Sprout) into our family.  I've been a Stay-At-Home Dad & a Work-At-Home Dad, and it's unclear how much I'll be doing each of those by the end of the year, so other goals seems silly at this point.  

Sometime in the future I'll probably put some effort into thinking about how I use Social Media (and how I want to use it - Hi Goodreads account I haven't touched in two years!), keeping up the house, engaging my brain, parenting my child, etc., but all of that for the future. For this month, reading intentionally is quite enough.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rousseau and Winter's Heart

Rousseau's 1750 "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" (arguably one of the earliest #slatepitches) argued in the midst of the Enlightenment that supposed advances in the arts and sciences had contributed to the decay of morals in society.  Fitting into the Social Contract theory at the time, he located an idyllic Mankind in during a prehistoric State of Nature who had been moral and virtuous but gradually fallen into corruption.  Notably, a century earlier Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" had also theorized about this prehistoric State of Nature, but had identified its inhabitants as much less moral and virtuous than Rousseau's imagined people.  Social Contract thinkers such as Rousseau and Hobbes imagined distant pasts, humans in a setting stripped of technology and contemporary conventions, seeking to reveal some universal truth about humanity, but in reality revealing much more of their own individual biases than any universal truths.

Nevertheless, storytellers and fiction writers, particularly fantasy fiction writers have been making up distant worlds populated with people not unlike ourselves but in vastly different contexts since long before Hobbes and Rousseau developed their social contracts, and continuing long after.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of developing a "mythology for England" to rival what he viewed as the ancient unifying traditions of the French and the Germans.  Less than a century earlier, the Finnish Kalevala was first compiled, a loose collection of folktales mashed together to form what it's creator, Elias Lönnrot saw as the unifying tradition of his own people.  Nationalism was in the air, and in the invented worlds of the time.  

Contemporary fantasy, of course, continues this tradition.  Pseudo-medieval worlds abound, full of many of the same people and cultural assumptions, all reinforcing each other.  If you haven't yet read Kate Elliot's essay on "The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding", please click over there now.  I'll wait.  Every author's cultural assumptions reveal themselves in their writing, the details they include and those they leave out.  And every reader's cultural assumptions imprint themselves just as strongly in the details they notice, gloss over, or simply ignore.

As I'm working my way through "The Wheel of Time" (perhaps for the last time), it's striking where Robert Jordan chooses to emphasize details in his cultures.  Essentially we have the Aiel, the Seanchan, and then (the nobility of) everywhere else.  From the borderlands through Andor, Cairhein, the two strong southern kingdoms of Tear and Illian, and the other various smaller and fragmented lands, nobles play the game of the houses to one degree or another, and the king, queen, high council, or other ruling body extends it's sway through the use of force or the promise of protection from an exterior threat.  Little attention is given to those who are not nobles.  They seem to act just about the same in every way, except for the women, who have some unique personality trait in each place (generally related to how they relate to men).  Saldaean women are tigers (and apparently the farmgirls like haylofts), Ebou Dari carry knives and aren't afraid to use them, Domani are sexual and manipulative, Two Rivers women are really in charge.  The list goes on.  Between the mountains and the sea, all are one, either a faceless mass, a noble owing allegiance based on fear, or a woman thinking about how to deal with men.

The Aiel and Seanchan each represent at least slightly more original cultures.  The Aiel are essentially the noble savages Rousseau hearkened back to.  Warlike, but honorable, adopting the practice of counting coup from various native american plains tribes, and following their chiefs while also adhering to their own sense of discretion and honor.  The imperial Seanchan, with a well-established bureaucracy, fanatical devotion, and at least the appearance of meritocracy more closely mirror an approximation of some oriental imperial culture.  Jordan gives us glimpses of ceremonies from each of these cultures, referring to the Seanchan naming day, and at the beginning of "Winter's Heart" showing us the ceremony where Elayne and Aviendha adopt each other as first-sisters.

The women are brought together and first asked to prove their love for each other.  Then with some magical assistance they are forced into a symbolic womb, stripped of their identity and re-emerge, regaining themselves in the process.  The ceremony is literal, and it is primitive.  It is a ceremony performed in the old way, by women whose purpose is to save and retain a "remnant of a remnant" of their people.  Pages later, Rand visits the academy he has established, and reviews the strange and wondrous inventions being developed.  He, too, wishes to establish a legacy that will outlast the battle he is driving towards.  But he wishes to advance the arts and sciences to create his own legacy.  The noble savages, more moral and virtuous, but ultimately less advanced stand in contrast to the Enlightened but morally bankrupt people two and a half centuries after Rousseau.

As readers, we bring ourselves to these works.  We exclaim over some details, ignore others, and potentially are even inspired to blog or tweet or otherwise react to others.  The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding.  Whitewashed Western European history is not simply the story of an ignorant medieval period between the grandeur of imperial Rome and the Enlightenment of the Renaissance.  Nor is Western European history the only inspiration available for fantasy stories.  I have loved "The Wheel of Time" for years, and the fantasy genre for longer.  It's a pleasure to read and enjoy and travel for a time with new companions into strange worlds.  But in addition to sojourning in other worlds, we shape and construct our view of this world, and that's a lot more complicated than whatever appears in the text on the the page.