Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Crucial vote tomorrow

Last night, the Washington state House Judiciary Committee passed by a vote of 7-6 the bill to extend the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. Tomorrow, the state Senate will vote. There's a very good chance it will pass.

If it does pass, Gov Chris Gregoire will sign it. Washington will be the seventh state (plus Washington, D.C.) where people who love each other can get married. We won't have to settle for marridge.

But the margin of votes is narrow. If you live in Washington, please call your state Senator and urge her or him to vote Yes. If you don't live here but have friends and/or relatives here, phone them and urge them to call their Senator. (Find yours here.)

And hopefully I'll have good news to report tomorrow. Start dialing.

ETA: The bill won't come to the floor of the Senate until 6 pm Wednesday. My guess? Lots of people will want to make lots of speeches, so the vote will while a while. I'm currently fairly confident of its passage--but, hey, many a slip twixt cup and lip...

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Game of Thrones Season Two trailer

Clearly the producers have taken on board the popularity of Peter Dinklage and his character, Tyrion. Also, the palette looks much darker. I hope there are some jokes and some pretties is much great acting and stern drama.

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Available for rent: the Acropolis

Parthenon (Cornell)

Parthenon (Brooklyn Museum)

These two photos were taken a long time ago. But this is how the Acropolis looked when I walked there, when I sat on one of those bits of marble and smoked a cigarette looking out over Athens. Of course, when I was there, it was less clean: can tabs, cigarette butts, food wrappers... And perhaps it was slightly more ruinous. But it was magnificent. Even in the haze of morning-after-my-first-sex-with-a-woman it made an impression:

Greece was the first foreign country I visited. It marked many firsts. Kissing a girl. Knocking a man down (I was smoking outside a disco, sitting on a wall, he came outside and sat next to me; he wore a white silk catsuit, professed to love the music of "pin floynd", and insisted that because he was joining the army tomorrow we had to kiss; I pushed him backwards off the wall). Smoking inside an historical monument (the Parthenon, and yes, it was amazing to sit on a broken column and look out over the city with my girl by my side and a fat bumble bee buzzing by my foot). From And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer's early life

Since then, the Greeks have partially restored the place. And now they want a return on their investment:

In a move bound to leave many Greeks and scholars aghast, Greece's culture ministry said Tuesday it will open up some of the debt-stricken country's most-cherished archaeological sites to advertising firms and other ventures.
The ministry says the move is a common-sense way of helping "facilitate" access to the country's ancient Greek ruins, and money generated would fund the upkeep and monitoring of sites. The first site to be opened would be the Acropolis.
Archaeologists, however, have for decades slammed such an initiative as sacrilege. [Read the rest here.]

If they're broke, they're broke, but it would be a pity to see the old place riddled with rubbish again. I remember it fondly.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

MS on Dr Kiki's Science Hour

The huge news that MS is a metabolic disorder and not an autoimmune disease hit the web afresh this week.

On Thursday, Angelique Corthals, the author of "Multiple Sclerosis is Not a Disease of the Immune System," was on Dr Kiki's Science Hour, a marvellous weekly one-whole-hour video interview about a single chewy science topic:

I'll be watching more of this show.

And then yesterday io9.com ran an article, "Have we been looking at Multiple Sclerosis all wrong?"

The MS ship turns slowly. But it is turning.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Galactic Suburbia Award

This morning I woke up to a lovely surprise: I've been awarded the first Galactic Suburbia Award for activism and/or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction. This is in recognition of Taking the Russ Pledge and related posts.

The award was announced in the podcast. I haven't listened to it yet (I'm still sipping my first cup of tea of the day, and blinking). But here's the basic info:

The Galactic Suburbia Award
for activism and/or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction in 2011

Honours List

Winner

  • Nicola Griffith - for the Russ Pledge, and associated blogging

This is a great list of names doing great work to keep the issues of equality front and centre in the ongoing conversation. I am honoured (and delighted) to be part of it and think perhaps we should find a way to share custody of the prize: a Deepings Doll, a hand-painted figurine of a suffragette with a Galactic Suburbia placard.

The fabulous women who run Galactic Suburbia, Alisa, Alex, and Tansy, are asking for ideas about the Galactic Suburbia Honours list for 2012. Send deserving names to galacticsuburbia@gmail.com or tweet @galacticsuburbs. Personally, I think they deserve an award, too.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Resilience

A student of mine, Eric Nguyen, has edited a marvellous book, Resilience:

To be queer and young is to be STRONG. To be queer and young is to be RESILIENT. Collected in this anthology are over 20 inspiring stories, poems, essays, and other writings made for you - our queer youth. Started in 2010 in a time of crisis for the queer community, these are the works of artists who wanted to show the world the power of words. While eclectic in style and form, what unites these works is a message of hope: it doesn't just get better, you grow stronger and wiser. Money from the sale of this book will be used to help fund The Make It Safe Project, which aims to bring LGBT-related books into schools and homeless shelters and into the hands of LGBT kids. More information on Resilience, visit the Better Books Project.

This is an anthology of stories, poems, essays, etc for LGBT teens. Money from it will be donated to the Make It Safe Project, which helps brings LGBT books to schools and shelters. I haven't read it, but I know it will be good: there are pieces in the book by two other students of mine, Liz Green and Jarrett Neal, and poems and essays by several other Fellows I had the good fortune to meet in Los Angeles when I taught at the Emerging LGBT Voices writing retreat in 2010.

This is an important project. I urge you to go take a look at the sample, then go buy a copy. You'll not only be getting yourself a very cool book, you'll be helping young LGBT kids who have nowhere else to turn.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards are awarded annually for works of speculative fiction translated into English from other languages. There are two awards: one for long form (over 40,000 words) and one...well, I expect you can work that out.

They are a fabulous idea--encouraging availability of world sf--and they need your help. They are currently running an auction fundraiser, with many great prizes. Some examples:

  • A signed US hardback edition of Embassytown from China Miéville
  • A signed manuscript of Pirate Cinema, Cory Doctorow’s forthcoming YA novel
  • A signed copy of the South African edition of Moxyland, with soundtrack by African Dope on CD, from Lauren Beukes
  • A signed copy of the Pyr edition of The Restoration Game from Ken MacLeod
  • A signed copy of Range of Ghosts, the new novel from Elizabeth Bear

Kelley is giving a signed copy of the Small Beer edition of Solitaire, the one with the fab new cover:

I'm offering a signed first edition of Ammonite, never even opened. (If you'd prefer it utterly uncracked, I won't sign it.) There have been several editions and printings of this book:

The one I'm offering is the orange paperback on the left with the jellybean spaceship. It's the very first printing of the very first edition of my very first novel. I don't know how many there are left in the world but I only have two on my shelf.

Please go make some mad bids on some good stuff and help a great cause. (Don't forget it's tax-deductible--and your employer may match the money you donate.)

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

All is well with the world

Yesterday was an astonishingly sunny day here in Seattle. I was serenaded by a fat bird at breakfast:

And in the afternoon, Chow Ciao--whose real name, it turns out, is Eros (yep, she's a boy), and is now being time-shared by two sets of doting neighbours, though of course we still offer treats every now and again (today it was chicken)--snored on the fence outside my office:

All is well with the world. Except, perhaps, for the bird...

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Washington marridge about to become marriage?

About an hour from now, the Washington State legislature will open hearings on two identical same-sex marriage bills, HB 2516 and SB 6239, in the House and Senate in Olympia:

Senate: 10 a.m. in the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections, Senate hearing room 2, J.A. Cherberg Building. A series of prearranged three-person panels, both pro and con, will speak, then the committee chairman will pick people at random who signed up to speak. The hearing will last for about two hours.

House: 1:30 p.m. in the House Committee on Judiciary, hearing room A, John L. O'Brien Building. Five bills are on the agenda, and gay marriage is the last one. It's expected to be heard around 2:30 p.m.; testimony will go for an hour.

The hearings are expected to be crowded. So unless you're already in line, I suggest watching them at home. Both will be aired live on TVW.

I believe that both bills will come to a vote as early as the beginning of February. There are enough votes in the House and it's possible that one or two uncommitted Senators may tip the balance in favour in the Senate. Then Washington would be the seventh state in the US to allow same-sex marriage.

The momentum is definitely there. Recently 50 major-city mayors called for marriage equality. And here's Governor Christine Gregoire on the matter:

For more, read these great articles (roughly in chronological order) in the The Advocate, the Huffington Post, and Seattle Times.

I have a lot to say on this issue. Most obviously that it's time and past time for politicians to stop splitting hairs and do what's simple and right: I want marriage, not just marridge. Separate but equal is not equal. The rest I'll save that for another post. Meanwhile, go read the articles.

ETA: The bill now has the votes in the Senate. Looks as though it will come to a vote next month. I'll post updates.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Libraries rock

Fans of Green County Public Library (Ohio) made this supercut of scenes from TV and film about libraries. Libraries rock. If you get impatient, fast forward to 1:18 to see what I'm talking about. But try not to be impatient; you will be rewarded.

Via LLF

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

It Was the Snow

A picture of our street taken Friday Thursday afternoon by our favourite photographer, Jennifer Durham (who took these snapshots with her phone), looking down the hill to our house (which is mostly hidden by the hedge). Just for grins, here's the main drag by the supermarket, and the nearby golf course:



Last night it started to rain. I'm guessing by tomorrow, all the snow will be gone. Then I'll rediscover my sanity and we'll get back to blogging about all things writerly. And queer. And scientifical. And foodish.

-----

Don't understand the title? You need to read some Pat Cadigan, specifically "It Was the Heat."


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Friday, January 20, 2012

I'm a woman writer: I am unspeakably privileged

If you believe Teddy Wayne, I am, as a writer, unspeakably privileged: I'm a woman.

In "The Agony of the Male Novelist," (sadly, I'm not kidding) he says:

For the majority of male literary authors — excluding the upper echelon of Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Don DeLillo and their ilk, plus a few younger writers like Chad Harbach who have scored much-ballyhooed advances — it’s actually harder than it is for women to carve out a financially stable writing career.

His argument (I use the word loosely) is so logically pitiful that I thought he might be attempting some kind of wit. I certainly don't want to waste my time reiterating it here. You're all familiar with it's essence: But teh menz hav it reeely reeely hard!

However, one snippet of his whine pleases me:

The archetypal book-club novel is written by a woman, its characters are female-centric, and it contains a love story, sensitive coming-of-age tale, or mother-daughter narrative, perhaps set against a historical backdrop.

If you replace or with and, and throw in some sex, swords, and scheming, that's a pretty good description of Hild. So, hey, now I know what to do with my snow day: come up with a list of earnest questions for the book club. Chortle.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

How to take down a mammoth

Still snowing. Huge icicle hanging outside our kitchen could probably take down a mammoth. There's an ice storm warning in effect for most of the rest of the day. As KOMO-4 say cheerily on their blog, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

As a result of the ice storm, Governor Christine Gregoire has declared a state of emergency for Washington (though this is, apparently, party to make life easier for dairy farmers).

Me? Sick of the weather. Hoping for lashing of warm rain tomorrow to wash it all away. Right now I'd be happy to take on that mammoth. Believe it or not, I'm tired of reading...

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Marooned

It started snowing in earnest first thing Tuesday morning:

It stopped yesterday, but everything stayed frozen. Today it's a little warmer, but it's snowing again:

Today I'd planned on a massage, but no one is getting in or out of this cul-de-sac unless it warms up and the snow turns to rain.

But being marooned isn't unbearable. Yet. I've watched an episode of Justified, two each of Entourage and Antiques Roadshow, one each of Castle and Downton Abbey, and every extra, teaser, snippet and trailer I can find for the upcoming Season Two of Game of Thrones. Favourites of the televisuals? Justified and Downton Abbey.

I've caught up on the Economist (two whole issues--sadly with less interesting science/technology and books/arts section than usual) and a few blogs. I've read Stella Duffy's Theodora (I can't make up my mind whether it needs a sequel), and just begun Bernard Cornwell's latest, Death of Kings, which promises to be up to his usual satisfying and happily violent standard.

I've also eaten double my bodyweight in meals and snacks. For example, breakfast this morning was an omelette/egg torta: eggs and leftover roasted vegetables from last night: cauliflower, brussel spouts, onion, smidgeon of carrot. It makes a surprisingly robust flan-like thing that's wholly good for a person. Exceedingly tasty, very filling. (Yesterday's breakfast was good in a different way: big chunk of cod and a sadly-slanted 'half' a grapefruit--colourful but lopsided.) My latest mania, snack-wise, is very fresh macadamia nuts lightly roasted. I swear they taste just like shortbread biscuits. Splendid little things.

You'd think this weather would be perfect to settle down and get some work done. It's not working out that way. I keep finding myself staring out of the window, longing to get out. My restlessness is rising like a tide.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How I look now

photo by Riva Lehrer, January 2012

This photo is by the artist Riva Lehrer. It's low-res and not well-lit because it's just one in a series of a hundred snapshots she took ten days ago to help conceptualise a piece she's working on. But a) it's been a while since I posted a photo, and b) I find I like not being able to see all those dints and wrinkles that have accumulated in the course of a rough-and-tumble (uh-huh) writer's life.

The finished picture will be clear and sharp, though, a representation of, well, me--but not the me you're likely to find in a photo. An artist's portrait is a rich and complicated thing. I feel very lucky to be involved in this. I'm looking forward to seeing what Riva sees, in my face, in my presence, in my work. I'm hoping I'll learn something. Plus, y'know, look splendid.

ETA: In going through the photos I came across this one that I like, too; it's less pose-y:

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I need amusement!

Snow is coming down. It will come down all day. Tomorrow there will be a lot more. I won't be able to leave the house between now and Thursday at the earliest (probably Friday). So I need amusement.

Tell me what books, TV, and film I should check out. It must be available on cable or via Amazon or Netlix. I can't watch Apple or Hulu stuff on my big-screen set up, and I hate watching on my desktop monitor. I don't have an iPad and the phone is too small.

For an idea of things I like see the, ah, List of Things I Like. (Must get around to turning that into a proper blog post one of these days.

Last night I watched Contagion: recommended by many people. But, damn, Soderbergh doesn't know the meaning of the word 'emotion'. Like Ocean's Eleven or even Sex, Lies and Videotape, it was a cool, keep-the-viewer-at-arms'-length piece of work. Not my cup of tea. At all.

I love escapism. Filmwise, the latest reboot of Star Trek is practically perfect. Galaxy Quest and Die Hard rock the Thunderdome. TV-wise, my favourites are things like Merlin, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Trueblood, Buffy, Highlander, Firefly, etc. I loved the first season of Deadwood, but then it lost itself in its own mannerisms. I thought the first season of The Sopranos was a blast, but then it dissolved into nothingness. I thought Lost sucked after about four eps. Stuff like Breaking Bad is too grim. I just don't care about ordinary life, don't give a damn for realism.

In terms of novels (I'm not interested in non-fiction right now), I like well-written story. I don't much care for delicate examinations of the meaning of life. I don't object to it--I just don't want it to be the point. Angst, in fiction as in real life, pisses me off. I find it self-indulgent.

So: help! Save me from madness and eating the neighbours!

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Snow day

Today is a snow day. I'll be watching this and thinking about Hild:

I'm grateful for modern conveniences: light, heat, the ability to cook nourishing food without having to have hole in the wall or ceiling. The twenty-first century is our friend. And, yep, I promise that next time I'll remember to turn my phone sideways before I shoot the video...

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Some blog stats

It's been a while since I gave you a peek behind the curtain. So here are some relatively arbitrary statistics about this month's traffic:

  • In the last thirty days 23,096 people have passed through here. This is a significant increase (a little over 50%) over the monthly average.
  • 27% of you are Mac users. Another 7% of you visited via your mobile device.
  • Unsurpringly, the top two countries are the US and the UK, followed by Canada, Germany, France, Australia, Netherlands...and then things get uncertain because at this point Google Analytics starts to disagree with the built in Blogger stats, so it could be Russia, Belgium, and India (Blogger), or Belgium, Serbia, and New Zealand (GA).
  • The French read the most pages per visit.
  • Chrome has now outpaced Safari as your browser of choice--though both still lag behind Firefox (number 1) and (oh dear god, people, please stop using it) Internet Explorer (number 2).
  • New visitors this month outpaced old by a wider margin than usual: 63.58% to 36.42%. (Long term, those numbers are much more evenly matched: 53.46% to 46.54%.)

Most of this can be explained by my posts on the new framework for understanding MS as a metabolic disorder. I don't normally give much space to MS on this blog (it takes up enough room in my life without it invading this space, too), but this was a special case. It triggered a fresh influx of readers, particularly from Europe. Some are sticking around, but most are going away when they discover I tend to talk more about writing than health.

So, there you go. At some point I'll ask you questions about what you like best/least about this blog, but not today. Today I go look at the pitiful excuse for snow the sky is attempting to drop on us and contemplate the next phase of Hild

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Boundless blue beauty

Here's a photo taken earlier this week--Wednesday afternoon--looking out over Puget Sound. The long low bit is Bainbridge Island. Behind it, the Olympics.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day, an absolute gift. Cold, though. So, while the sun was bright and I was feeling pleased with the world for a variety of reasons, I didn't hang about.

Forecast this weekend: snow (we are in a convergence zone). Ah, but I had this. For a few hours, I saw bright, bright blue.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Freedom from money worries leads to great writing

I've always believed that writers do their best work when they are unhooked from the financial hamster wheel. Finally, I've found someone else who believes the same thing. Sort of. Below is a cartoon illustration of Dan Pink's thesis, explicated in Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, that it isn't money that motivates brain work, it's autonomy, mastery, and purpose:

The trick, though, is to be making enough money that the cognitive worker--the writer, say--doesn't have to think about it, doesn't have to connect the specific work to paying the rent or buying new glasses.

I haven't read Drive, and I'm guessing after watching this ten-minute animation that I don't need to, but the notion makes a lot of sense to me. It makes me wonder what brilliant art we might have if there were more grants for creators, and more generous patrons.

Some writers, for example Tolkien, use the security of an academic job to free their writing. But teaching is a real job; it took him twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings. To me it's significant that the work only really took off when he was writing not for his publisher but for his son. I can only imagine how much more quickly all this would have come together if he'd had a five-year MacArthur Fellowship and complete freedom.

I'd love to be free, just for a little while, from thinking about money. So if you are or happen to know a tech multi-millionaire, my email address is in the sidebar...

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Arthur, Hild, and the challenge of the historical novel sequence

Yesterday I started rereading Gillian Bradshaw's Arthurian trilogy. I've always loved Hawk of May. And I like Kingdom of Summer well enough. But I rarely continue to In Winter's Shadow.

As I read and mentally ranged ahead to the next book I realised that this--preferring the first book in the sequence--is a pattern with me and the Matter of Britain (or at least the Arthurian cycle). I love T.H. White's Once and Future King, yet I can't remember the last time I managed to read past The Sword in the Stone. Then there's Mary Stewart. I've lost count of the number of times I've immersed myself in The Crystal Cave, but I've read the next two books, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, less often, and the fourth, The Wicked Day, hardly at all.

Perhaps it's the nature of trilogies: very often the first book is the best, it's the one the author pours their heart into. Perhaps it's the nature of this story cycle: Arthur begins as a shining youth, matures into a betrayed man, and ends as a king crushed by his inevitable doom. And perhaps it's the nature of those times, or our understanding and portrayal of same: so gendered I can hardly bear it, in which men kill each other, and women stay at home plotting, fretting, pining--then die in childbirth.

I suspect it's a combination. The Arthur story cycle inevitably begins with the story of boys (whether Arthur and Kay, Arthur and Merlin, or Arthur and Gawaine/Gwalchmai; girls don't enter into it. It's a tale of honour, glory, civilisation holding the line against lapping barbarianism, and swords, ponies, and brave banners. Wonderful outwardly-directed adventure with very little angst. But boys grow up, they notice girls, and suddenly we're in the heads of these bright, beautiful, brave young women who are hopelessly bound, bent, and belittled by the constraints of their gender. There's a lot of angst. Much less simple hack-the-heads-off-the-bad-guys and Might=Right=Light.

These are all things I had to bear in mind while writing Hild. I was determined not to fall into the gendered angst trap; my aim with this book is immersion, not claustrophobia. But when I began, I began to worry. In the early seventh century, women (by one estimate) spent 65% of their time on textiles: growing, harvesting, processing, weaving, sewing (and so on) flax and wool (and hemp and, sometimes, nettles). This is not the stuff of riveting twenty-first century fiction. Also, they really did die young, in their twenties generally (pregnancy is very, very hard on malnourished bodies). The easy way out is to do what most genre writers do: and sidestep the issue by giving their protagonists unrealistic/ahistorical traits and habits: they use the sword; they have sex without fear of pregnancy; they are perfectly healthy; their mate understands their need for independence. These writers use history as window dressing.

That isn't my path. I want readers--including experts in the field--to read Hild, nod, and think, "Yes, that's how it was." So my challenge was to bring the seventh century alive without suffocating the reader in the harsher aspects of reality: pain, disease, discomfort, fear, uncertainty, work, early death having babies. And to find a way to make it work while still colouring inside historical lines.

I found a way. I used a combination of narrative technique, Hild's extraordinary mind and body, and her peculiar and particular situation. I admit I did cheat in one respect: Hild's health is almost superhuman. (This can be sort of explained by the fact that she's astonishingly privileged: she gets all the food and comforts she needs. Besides, I thought I was allowed one free pass. And writing about illness is so tedious.)

But that was only for book one--traditionally the easy one in the sequence. I'm currently outlining book two and am going to have to pull some rabbits out of hats. How I love the smell of challenge in the morning!

While I'm doing this, you could go amuse yourselves with reading some of these books:

Gillian Bradshaw's Arthur books are historical fantasy with supernatural elements:
Hawk of May (1980)
Kingdom of Summer (1981)
In Winter's Shadow (1982)

Mary Stewart's are much less fantastical, but Merlin has the gift of the Sight:
The Crystal Cave (1970)
The Hollow Hills (1973)
The Last Enchantment (1979)
The Wicked Day (1983)

T.H. White's books are ahistorical, wickedly pointed, but not particularly fantastic:
The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, originally titled The Witch in the Wood)
The Ill-Made Knight (1940)
The Candle in the Wind (1958)

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Food glorious food

This is the kind of thing I'm eating for dinner on my new food regimen*: steak (grass-fed, and cooked on a Foreman grill), roasted beet, carrots, cauliflower, onion (just tiny bit) and brussel sprouts, and mushrooms (sauteed in olive oil). Book (old but ordinary-sized mass market paperback) for scale. Aperitif was a couple of little bottles of Perrier sipped by the fire with Kelley. Starter was a big gulp of flaxseed oil. Dessert was a pile of blueberries and raspberries, with green tea (decaf). Delicious.

I have no idea how many bazillion calories it amounts to. But I ate every scrap (and a bit of Kelley's). The sad part? I'll be hungry again in two hours. No alcohol and no grains will do that to a person.

Breakfast and lunch is a tad more austere (protein only for breakfast--fish or eggs; protein and non-carbolicious veg for lunch). But at night--well, evening (no food after 8:00 pm)--I pig out. Strictly speaking I shouldn't have had beets and carrots, but they were leftovers from yesterday. I couldn't let them go to waste.

* I really will blog about this regimen coherently. Too much going on right now to organise the information properly.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reading distinguishes us from other animals

At the end of December the Guardian ran a story about reading and empathy:

Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that "readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative". The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a new mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways.

The discovery that our brains are physically changed by the experience of reading is something many of us will understand instinctively, as we think back to the way an extraordinary book had a transformative effect on the way we viewed the world. This transformation only takes place when we lose ourselves in a book, abandoning the emotional and mental chatter of the real world. That's why studies have found this kind of deep reading makes us more empathetic, or as Nicholas Carr puts it in his essay, The Dreams of Readers, "more alert to the inner lives of others".

This is significant because recent scientific research has also found a dramatic fall in empathy among teenagers in advanced western cultures.

I've talked about this in often in my essays, particularly in "As We Mean to Go On," which I wrote with Kelley, about how it was books that us together:

Books--the ones Kelley and I had read, the ones we wanted to write--drew us to the place where we would meet, and made it possible for us to understand each other when we got there. We were born only nine days apart, but also eight thousand miles, on different continents and to different cultures. Our meeting and life together should have been one long cultural car crash, but though there are times when our common language puzzles us extremely, books have formed for us a parallel universe, a world where we learnt the same things at the same time from the same characters, though sometimes with distinctly different flavours.

I've also written about reading: how it saves us, how it makes us, fortifies us, helps us find each other. This is from "Doing It For Pleasure":

Yet when I read, part of my pleasure is the knowledge that others have read the same words and been amused, educated, delighted, vindicated or connected, and I feel part of something bigger and richer and intensely exciting. When I put the book down, I go in search of a friend to talk to about the ideas or characters or places I've discovered. All my friends are readers. I wouldn't have it any other way; readers are, in my opinion, better people for having spent much of their lives being amused, educated, delighted, vindicated and connected.

Reading is the gateway to so many things that helps makes it possible for seven billion people to live together on one planet. Literature is the great extra-somatic keeper of our knowledge of what it is to be human. Reading elevates us. We read to be our best selves.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

No available brain

It's been a busy day. All bandwidth taken. I forgot to blog. Ooops. Oh, well. As someone not a million miles from here likes to say, Western civilization will no doubt survive...

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Watch art being born

Just what we all need for a relaxed Sunday: soothing video of Donato Giancola, a popular f/sf artist, creating an oil painting (or, eh, probably acrylic...). The music is neither here nor there, and the painting itself, of Joan of Arc, is rather standard, but the process is fascinating. I particularly enjoyed watching her eyes take on colour and life. I love to watch other artists at work. And, hey, it's only four minutes: worth a look.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Some sun to go with that

I'm enjoying the conversation about Tolkien and literature we started yesterday. Here's a bit of sunshine to go with that: early morning from my office window earlier this week. An unexpectedly bright, fresh day in what is traditionally a gloomy month.

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Tolkien's storytelling not up to snuff?

I amused myself yesterday by briefly getting apoplectic over a Guardian article: Tolkien was dismissed by the 1961 Nobel prize jury as a second-rate storyteller:

The prose of Tolkien – who was nominated by his friend and fellow fantasy author CS Lewis – "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality", wrote jury member Anders Österling. Frost, on the other hand, was dismissed because of his "advanced age" – he was 86 at the time – with the jury deciding the American poet's years were "a fundamental obstacle, which the committee regretfully found it necessary to state". Forster was also ruled out for his age – a consideration that no longer bothers the jury, which awarded the prize to the 87-year-old Doris Lessing in 2007 – with Österling calling the author "a shadow of his former self, with long lost spiritual health".

Durrell, meanwhile, "gives a dubious aftertaste … because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications", while Italian novelist Alberto Moravia "suffers from … a general monotony".

Greene, who never won the Nobel, was 1961's runner-up, with Danish writer Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, coming in third.

It seems to me that the Nobel Committee confused 'prose' and 'storytelling'. Both, of course, are vital in a great novel. My favourites--for example, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin sequence--combine sharp but generous prose with particular characters, vivid setting and riveting plot. It's that combination that creates the story. And the very best stories have a clear, tight, and inevitable arc.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the best novels I know. It's not perfect. I admit that in the first hundred pages or so the prose wobbles--and occasionally lurches--here and there, enough to make the blue pencil in my head twitch and to make me turn away to allow a decent pause for the prose to collect itself. But it improves, and later passages can be very fine. And, oh dear me, yes, he could have lost quite a few chunks of song. And, no, he doesn't do women fully--he doesn't do them horribly, he just doesn't do them enough--but all writers have their weak spots. His storytelling, however, is without peer. Tolkien's arcs--for Frodo, and Sam, and Aragorn--are graceful and strong, elegant as Chinese cabinetry: pared down to the essential, perfectly balanced. The result is a story so compelling that, at age eleven, I read the entire book in one two-day marathon. And I've read it roughly every fifteen months since. I know I'm not the only one.

The Nobel Prizes are awarded for "achievement." I wonder how the Nobel Committee defines that.

The winner of the Nobel Prize in literature fifty years ago was Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić. I have no doubt that he can write, but I had never heard of him. I wonder how writers he has influenced? I wonder, How many people are reading and rereading him today?

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Christopher Logue, poet

I read All Day Permanent Red when it first came out in 2003 (or perhaps it was when it first came out in this country the year after). It's brilliant poetry. Here's what I said about it then:

[Logue]'s an English poet and occasional screenwriter who has reimagined the first battles of Homer's Iliad. His technique is often quite cinematic, with jump cuts and scene notes, and he renames characters from the epic without batting an eye. His imagery is a mix of historically accurate and wildly anachronistic (arrows carve tunnels through people's necks the width of a lipstick, a footsoldier's shield sprouts arrows as thick as the microphones at a politician's podium) but I felt the dust gritting under my palms and the blood in my mouth. The whole is as startling as a flick in the eye. Astonishing.

Logue died last month but I found myself thinking about him and his work again today as I pondered the next Hild novel--which might start with a big battle.

After lunch, restless, I was idly leafing through the magazines I didn't get around to reading over the holidays and came across the Economist's obituary of Logue. I don't know who the writer is, but I've read their work before: it's consistently fine. And this one is fantastic. You should read it. And if between us we can't persuade you to go read War Music or All Day Permanent Red then your notion of poetry is not mine.

If you've never read it, do so. I promise you'll be shocked awake. The world is worth being awake for.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

GAFA fight!

Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) between them pretty much rule consumer tech world. (You can find a good analysis of the GAFA ecosystem--in audio--at the Economist's Babbage blog.) They began in different niches. Increasingly, though, they're thieving from each other's patch. (Google is doing books--half-heartedly. It's doing social media--unexcitingly. It's doing mobile--but without profit in the form of the free, open-source Android. Facebook is muscling in on advertising revenue. Apple... Eh, but you've all read all the news.)

Amazon changed the game, moved it up a gear, by bursting into the mobile hardware/portal scene with their inexpensive Kindle Fire tablet. And now, according to reports like this one from GalleyCat, Apple is rumoured to be planning a move onto Amazon's publishing turf with an announcement of an epublishing platform.

I'm guessing this is just the beginning of fun-filled invasion games. If I had to bet a sandwich, it would be that, next up, Facebook will do something interesting with content publishing. If I were them, I'd buy Goodreads, put out a cheap tablet, and build my own self-publishing set-up for both books and music. A poke in the eye for both As in the GAFA and another step towards reducing Google's relevance except as the provider of an open-source mobile platform.

So that's my (only partly joking) prediction for 2012. What's yours?

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

MS new hits the Washington Post

News of Dr Angelique Corthals' exciting paper on MS yesterday hit the Washington Post. I'm delighted.

This is how the NMSS responded:

Dr. Corthals’s paper adds to ongoing discussion about what causes MS, but since it is a review of published research, rather than results from original studies, the report carefully notes the need for more research.

The National MS Society welcomes the ideas of thoughtful people who want to end MS, and fully agrees that we need to pursue all promising leads to do so.

While I understand the NMSS's cautious response I'm looking forward to them taking the time to analyse Angelique's work and really get to grips with it.

ETA: For those who want a copy of the paper, drop a comment with your email address and I'll send it to you.

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Monday, January 2, 2012

One-day writing workshop in Seattle

Clarion West is the world pinnacle of f/sf workshoppery. Every year, emerging writers from all over (Africa, Japan, the UK, US, Australia...) undergo a competetive selection process to be one of the eighteen chosen for a six-week immersive experience taught by the best writers in the business. (This year? Hiromi Goto, George R.R. Martin, Chuck Palahniuk, Mary Rosenblum, Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, Connie Willis.)

It's a life-changing experience. It's six weeks of nothing-but-writing, nothing-but-learning. It costs $3,600.

Have you ever wondered what it's like?

Well, the fabulous people who run that workshop have started a series of taster classes: one-off, one-day workshops right here in Seattle. They're a kind of literary salon, with a leader. They last six hours. They cost $125. They're for all writers, not just f/sf. And they're first-come, first-served. This is your chance to take a Clarion West for a test drive.

Each one-day workshop has a laser-sharp focus. Each is taught by writers with years of experience and multiple books under their belt.

Here's the line-up for the first quarter of this year:

★ Avoiding Rejection
Louise Marley
Sunday, January 15, 2012
10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Agents often only read the first ten pages of a novel before deciding if they want you as a client. Slush readers for magazines decide within a few paragraphs whether your short story is right for them. We'll practice techniques to make your manuscript grab the attention of an agent or editor from the first paragraph on.

★ Bringing the World to Life (Without Killing the Story)
Richard Paul Russo
Sunday, February 5, 2012
10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
How do you provide enough information about the physical, social, political, and other aspects of the story’s environment to fully engage your readers without distracting from or slowing down the story? Accomplishing this is one of a writer’s biggest challenges. Through discussion and written exercises, we’ll explore different approaches to scene-setting and description that bring the world of the story richly to life without losing the readers’ interest or engagement.

★ Creating Your Urban Fantasy World
Kat Richardson
Sunday, March 4, 2012
10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
This special-focus workshop will help you learn how to choose, establish, and write a setting (real, alternate, historical, or allegorical) appropriate for Urban Fantasy. You'll learn how to block out and write action that utilizes whatever magic, occult, or paranormal system you're establishing, and how to develop and write characters for Urban Fantasy by integrating their power(s) and skills--or lack of them--with their setting and interactions.

If you want to get into Louise Marley's workshop, you have exactly one week to get your application in (apply here by January 8). Louise is a great teacher, and whether you write litfic, urban fantasy, or gritty Napoleonic war fiction, it all begins with the first page. Start your engines...

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

And now we move on

This is how we began our celebration last night.

Every New Year's Eve since we've met, we've opened a bottle of Champagne (rarely just one) and talked about the year that's past. We wander all over the map: what we learnt, how we feel about that, what it means. They we start eating, and we talk about the year that's to come: our hopes, our dreams, our plans. As we talk, we gradually reach firm goals and hard targets. We talk the night away.

Last night I enjoyed my Champagne with particular intensity. It's the last alcohol for me for at least six weeks; I'm taking my lipid cycle in hand. (I'll talk about the diet, exercise, and so on in more detail another time.) I imagine that to begin with I'll get thin and a bit peevish. But then I'll become stronger, faster, better than before...

2012 is going to be a magnificent year. Stay tuned.

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