Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Fantasy Genre: Magic Realism and the Trick of Taxonomy

I absolutely should NOT be writing a blog post, especially one this long. Lucky you?

Defining what is or is not fantasy is a bit of a puzzle. I long ago learned that there was trouble with the taxonomies of English literary analysis. The taxonomic word, genre, is overburdened to the point of disintegration. Northrop Frye said that English literature has a poverty of terminology. That's not quite true; there would not be a Bedford's Glossary if it were. But it is true that we could perhaps use some more words to add to our taxonomic system, because genre is trying to hold down six jobs or more at the moment, and it's not working. Frye in his Polemical Introduction puts it well:
The very word "genre" sticks out in an English sentence as the unpronounceable and alien thing it is. Most critical efforts to handle such generic terms as "epic" and "novel" are chiefly interesting as examples of the psychology of rumor. Thanks to the Greeks, we can distinguish tragedy from comedy in drama, and so we still tend to assume that each is the half of drama that is not the other half. When we come to deal with such forms as the masque, opera, movie, ballet, puppet-play, mystery-play, morality, commedia dell' arte, and Zauberspiel, we find ourselves in the position of the Renaissance doctors who refused to treat syphilis because Galen said nothing about it.
Does "genre" refer to the poetry, prose, stage distinction? It is commonly used in this way. "Medium" may be better, but then what word but "medium" can distinguish between literature and painting? Or does "genre" refer to the comedy-tragedy-history cluster? Comedy-romance-tragedy-irony? This is a question that the Renaissance poets were struggling with (for instance, a pastoral is poetry sung by fictional shepherds, while a tragedy is a play about the fall of nobles) and things have not seemed to improved much. And your average movie-goer has a different idea of genre entirely: comedy, romance, action, drama, family, horror, documentary, classic, fantasy/sci-fi. And then you can have subgenres: teen comedy, romantic comedy, western, war movie, Disney Princess movie, creature feature, National Geographic, musical, superhero movie. For the movie-goer, genres are less about formal features or general plot arcs as about whole clusters of expectations (generic conventions) about setting, tone, ending, realism, and so forth.

Think about the fantasy genre. You're likely imagining of a novel which includes magic and (probably) dragons. If you've read much fantasy, though, you'll realize how poor a description that is. Sure, it covers your Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts fare, but that's about all. First, a more rigourous definition of fantasy would probably remove magic (and dragons, of course) and replace it with "supernatural." That, for instance, is what Wikipedia does. (Wikipedia is terrible at literary analysis, of course, but since literary analytical circles have stopped worrying about the fine distinction between science fiction and fantasy, fandom is about the only place where this sort of thinking is still active.) There's a problem with that. Lots of genres use the supernatural: horror, supernatural romance, and science fiction are perhaps the most obvious, but virtually every genre has examples which employ it in one way or another. Another problem with this is that the science fiction-fantasy distinction often rides on the idea that science fiction can explain all or most of its unusual phenomenon with scientifically explained rules, at least within the universe of the novel. Of course, what we call a fantasy novel could do precisely that; the universe's well-defined physics just happen to be magic, including gods and spells and numinosity. (Of course, there's the attached debate as to whether science can fully explain any world at all, including the one we inhabit.)

(There's also the problem with "novel" in that definition. You can have fantasy short stories and movies, of course, and fantasy poetry [and verse novels], theatre, songs, paintings, computer games, and dance. But that's a whole new batch of trouble.)

And then there's trouble with placing magic realism, surrealism, and their friends. I will focus on magic realism for the purposes of this post because as much as I had been troubled by the science fiction-fantasy distinction, my encounters with magic realism were the last straw. Magic realism in fiction is described (Penguin's Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory) as having certain characteristics including "the mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic and bizarre, skillful time shifts, convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic descriptions, arcane erudition, the element of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable." The Penguin also makes a point of saying it is hard to define and that one could argue that there are instances of magic realism in non-magic realist works. A good rule of thumb is that in magic realism the supernatural occurs within the everyday, as though it were everyday; fantasy draws attention to itself as fantasy. But even this isn't clear-cut, though, since magic realism is also about the juxtaposition of magic and realism. For some time I thought the only difference between the two was the literary pretentions of the author and the reader. Green Grass Running Water is magic realism, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is surrealism, because they are "literary"; Harry Potter and Neverwhere are fantasy because they are "popular." (I looked at the Wikipedia page; it's discussion is in this case an OK place to start. I disagree with some of it, but it might help you begin to think about the genre. These definitions all appear on the page.)

So then we have this clumsy thing called speculative fiction, which contains anything that isn't realism. It could be an umbrella taxonomy containing distinct sub-groups, as genera are umbrellas for distinct species (except that species aren't distinct, but whatever, right?). However, many of us (English majors interested in this sort of thing) are rather fed up with attempts to sort out these genres. The differences between science fiction and fantasy aren't worth staking out because the formal features which identify them cannot be reasonably pinned down. We'll settle for calling it all speculative fiction.

But just as magic realism made me realize that there were no reliable formal features to distinguish forms of speculative fiction, so magic realism also made me realize that these genres nonetheless needed to be distinguished.

I was part of a symposium on Asian Canadian Studies; my paper was on a film called Eve and the Fire Horse, a wonderful piece of magic realism. As it turned out, lots of Asian Canadians wrote in magic realism, so other panelists discussed the term. Hiromi Goto's Hopeful Monsters came up multiple times. One of the other panelists brought up the term "postcolonial gothic"; theorists have used this term to notice the gothic themes--grotesqueries, oppressive authority figures, dangerous passions, disordered bodies, darkness--that occur in postcolonial works, such as Hopeful Monsters. He also observed that this term itself is a colonial act: to call these works "postcolonial" is itself problematic, but in particular "gothic" is worrisome because it is a European artistic description imposed on non-European work. "Magic realism" might be better; according to Penguin, it came from a description of Germanic painting, but in recent history it has been used almost exclusively in postcolonial contexts: Latin American, Native American, Asian Canadian, India... It seems like magic realism is a liberational medium for artists in marginalized ethnic populations. I realized then that there might be a problem in saying that magic realism was not sufficiently distinguishable from fantasy to count as a separate genre, but I hadn't quite put my finger on what distinguished it.

I then received a letter from a friend (Julia) with whom I had been corresponding about magic realism. She said that from a historical point of view, there was a distinction: in Latin America, magic realism had developed as a way for Latin Americans to insist on their own vision of the world outside of that of oppressive authoritative forces. Perhaps in literary analysis there isn't much difference, she said, but in cultural critique there is. It's similar to how science fiction came out of a particular historical moment (Enlightenment Europe as a backdrop, the industrialized European wars as the immediate cause) and is thus shaped by it.

Of course she was right. What I had been failing to see is that the distinction between genres had never, ever been about formal features. They had always been socially and culturally determined. I was thrown off the track by hundreds of years of analysis, but if you go back to those Renaissance poets you'll see that sitting in there among the formal requirements for each genre were also class requirements: pastorals and comedies were about the lower classes, tragedies and epics about the higher classes. I had always dismissed those as part of the classist assumptions of the time period, and of course they are, but I know realize that from the start social markers had played as much of a role in generic convention, and generic formation, as had formal features.

This changes the taxonomy. I am not obliged to adhere to strict generic categories, but rather I acknowledge historical, shifting categories. I have to re-think what taxonomy even means in this case, but suddenly the possibilities are open. But more importantly, this change emphasizes what fantasy, science fiction, magic realism, utopian fiction, and alternate history, and all other speculative fictions had been about from the start, what I (and many others) had lost in the silly, subtle, formal distinctions:

Speculation. Imagining new possibilities. Resisting set ideas. Bursting preconceptions. Re-articulating what reality is. This is where the genre's vitality rests. Let's not forget it.

Vancouver -- January

My apologies. These pictures are in reverse-chronological order.
I took all of these pictures in the last month.

Friday, 28 January 2011

7 Quick Takes (73)

1. I should not be doing this. I should be reading and editing a fragment of a novella for a friend so we can discuss it tomorrow. I should also be writing something new for tomorrow, problably a sonnet about silverfish. I should ALSO be reading Marlowe's Tamburlaine (both parts). Getting a start on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 might also be a good idea. As would preparing for my Reported Speech class. Also, there is an e-mail to an aunt that I ought to write soon. Not to mention letters to reply to. And, yet, all I want to do is write this blog post and then watch the events unfolding in Egypt.

2. If you are unaware of what's happening in Egypt, you should become aware of what's happening in Egypt. I've been watching Al Jazeera, and from what I understand, that is the only competitive source right now. None of the North American channels are worthwhile at the time I'm writing this. You can stream Al Jazeera live here. For those of you in the dark about what's going on, there's possibly a popular revolution right now in Egypt, and similar protests are going on in Jordan. (I say "possibly" only because it won't be a revolution if it doesn't succeed.)

3. I wrote a lot of letters this week. I'm still not caught up.
Last week I visited the Rare Books Collection at UBC with a class and read some authors' correspondences (Douglas Coupland, Dante Gabriel Rossetti). Suddenly letter-writing looks different. What if one of my recipients becomes famous and some embarassingly juvenile comment I wrote becomes part of a public collection?

4. As you might have read in my previous post, I got One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal out from the library. I have started to think that perhaps this is an area I should pursue. Anatomic and neurological atypicality are in many ways invisible minorities. Disability activism has some momentum, but disability is somewhat different from anatomic atypicality.

5. On Sunday I was recruited at church to help move a TV. I was recruited on the strength of being the youngest adult parishioner. It was another one of those unusual incidents in which I clearly was the strongest, most able-bodied person present. That is so entirely unlike my usual self-image that I don't know how to respond. (I helped, of course; I mean that I don't know how to respond mentally to people telling me I look strong, because I don't.)
It wasn't a bad move, though.

6. On the Saturday preceding I spent three hours helping organize the church library. We "released" a number of books "into the wild" because they were written at a time when a lot of churches saw things differently, especially concerning child-rearing, gender roles, and disability. There was a sort of catharsis to purging the shelves and boxes of that material. Most of the time we spent getting the books out of boxes and onto the shelves in numerical order. It was dusty work, but I was happy to help.

7. Wallace Stevens. We read Wallace Stevens in the class for which I am a TA. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is beautiful; if you have time, I encourage you to indulge in the luxurious language of "The Comedian as the Letter C." It's as rich as chocolate truffle. We also read some Marianne Moore. Are you familiar with her work? I like "The Fish." (Hint: the title is also the first line.)
Also, I am slowly, grumpily unfolding as far as T S Eliot is concerned. I may be approaching a position from which I could actual appreciate "The Wasteland." Maybe.

This blog carnival is kindly, excitingly, adjectivally hosted by Jen Fulwiler of Conversion Diary. Please pay a visit to her and the other participants in this carnival.

Grooveshark Playlist:
"Africa," Toto
"Dani California," Red Hot Chilli Peppers
"Welcome to the Jungle," Guns & Roses
"House of the Rising Sun," The Doors
"Stairway to Heaven," Led Zeppelin
"Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya," Dropkick Murphies
"I'm Shipping Up to Boston," Dropkick Murphies
"Amazing Grace," Dropkick Murphies
"Nothing Else Matters," Apocalyptica
"Kyrie Elison," Gregorian Chant
"O come Emmanual," Gregorian Chant
"Cossack Dance," Tchaikovsky
"Marche Slave," Tchaikovsky
"Concerto for Two Violins," Bach
"Ich Ruf Zu Din, Herr Jesu Christ," Bach
"We Three Kings," The Irish Tenors
"Fairytale of New York," The Irish Tenors
"Mordred's Lullaby," Heather Dale
"Tarnished Silver," Heather Dale
"Only Time," Enya
"My! My! Time Flies!" Enya
"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," Enya

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Reading One of Us

I recently got One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal from the library. It is apparently the kind of book I would get from the library, or so I've been told. If you want to see details, here's a link to the Amazon site. The official blurb on the back is very minimal:

One of Us views conjoined twins and other "abnormalities" from the point of view of people living with such anatomies, and considers these issues within the larger historical context of anatomical politics.
The rest of the back is quotations from book reviews.

It's the sort of book one would encounter in academia, so for those of my readers missing university thought, perhaps you can indulge yourselves vicariously through me here. I haven't even finished the introduction yet, but I want to quote portions of what I have read. There's a lot, but I wanted to preserve something like the thrust of the discussion. It's fascinating.

...The truth is, most of us go through minor anatomical 'normalization' procedures every day, changing our bodies ever so slightly to fit the identity we wish to present socially. We brush the plaque off our teeth, in part to keep them healthy but also so that they won't disgust others with a smell or appearance that would signal we are unclean (and therefore, by the rules of anatomy and identity, slovenly or poor or ill). We wash and style our hair and put on clothes meant to signal who we are underneath (man, woman, corporate team player, professor, artist, rebel). We add a wristwatch to enhance our imperfect internal clocks, to keep our bodily movements well timed in relation to others'.
We shave various parts of our bodies depending on what kind of sexuality we wish to signal. We put on eyeglasses or slide into a wheelchair to compensate for the anatomical deficits that might otherwise keep us out of the stream of human life, which largely requires sight and autonomous movement. We worry about getting too fat, knowing that fat is widely equated with weak will and ill health, and we so [sic] step on the scale, choose the diet soda, go to the gym for a workout.
Nevertheless, some people are born with anatomies that don't fit the social rules so far as anatomy and identity are concerned and that cannot be "normalized" by any simple procedure like shaving or the donning of glasses. These people are born with anatomies that complicate efforts to easily categorize them. Cheryl Chase, for example, was born with mixed sex anatomy, internally and externally, which made it hard for people to figure out whether to expect her to become a boy or a girl. Lori and Reba Schappell were born conjoined at the head, an anatomy that can make a new acquaintance unsure whether they are to be approached as one person or two. Ruta Sharangpani is profoundly nearsighted but can see just enough to manage without an obvious aid like a can or dog; she also has an eye that can't quite meet your because it shakes and wavers. Danny Black has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and though he is middle-aged he inhabits a body whose proportions are supposed to characterize only the immature.
[...]Most of us are so used to dealing with people who fit invisibly into the standard categories of anatomy and identity that it is jarring when we meet someone who doesn't. And it is the recognition of this awkwardness, the recognition of how comfortable it can be to be considered normal, how uncomfortable it can be to be considered abnormal, that motivates adults to want to surgically normalize children born with unusual anatomies, to separate the Loris and Rebas, to make the Cheryls look like "real" girls, to stretch the limbs of the Dannys, to make the Rutas look fully sighted.

Often the adults who impose such a normalization understand it as a charitable manifestation of pity. And no doubt it is. But "pity" is defined as sorrow for another's suffering and misfortune, and that's exactly why it is experienced by many people born with unusual anatomies as not only unsupportive but actively oppressive; for pity implies that the subject must be suffering and unfortunate. When I asked Lori Schappell how she felt when people treated her with pity, she bristled, saying that as soon as she saw such a "pity conversation" starting, she would end it or leave it. Trying to fight the degradation of puty, Ruta Sharangpani told me once, is "like trying to climb a glass wall. There are no handholds, no way to talk to a pitying person, because she or he does not see the disabled person as a competent individual." So, however unintentionally, pity silences the person who might otherwise speak to defend the value of her person and her life.[...]
By considering conjoined twinning and other "deformities" within the larger historical context of anatomical politics, [this book] argues for a more radical understanding of "abnormal" bodies. It seeks to change assumptions made about people born with unusual anatomies, and by doing so it seeks to change the context built around those people. The typical story told about such individuals is one in which the child's anatomy is changed to fit the social context. This book seeks instead to change the social context by exposing the breadth and depth of that context. It endeavors to show what something as rare as conjoinment could have to do with the rest of us.

In the next part of the Introduction, Dreger focuses on conjoined twins. [Boldface mine.]

...But the reason [conjoined twins] are treated so differently from others is not simply that they are rare; it is that people in general expect, quite reasonably, that any individual they meet will be the only person inhabiting his or her skin. Because most singletons--by which I mean people born with no anatomical bond to anyone but their mothers--understand psychosocial individuality as requiring anatomical individuality, they tend to assume that conjoined twins are trapped in such a way that makes a happy, normal life impossible. Only surgical separation could truly make them free.

New York Magazine vividly exemplified this assumption when it printed a photograph of infant twins Carmen and Rosa Taveras in November 1993--several months after they'd been surgically separated--under the headline "FREE AT LAST." But as Chapter 1 demonstrates, such a headline would make little sense to people who are conjoined, because most people who are conjoined do not feel physically entrapped. They do not wish they had been born into singleton bodies. Indeed, Laleh and Ladan Bijani, who chose to be separated in 2003 at the age of twenty-nine, were the first conjoined twins in history to consent to separation surgery. Though it may seem shocking, in none of the hundreds of previous separation operations performed were surgeons givern permission by the patients themselves to do the surgery. This is not simply because most conjoined twins fear the risks of separation. It is because [...] people who are conjoined typically feel that their bodies and lives are perfectly normal and acceptable--sometimes even preferable. They don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with being conjoined. Thus, one of the ways in which conjoined twins are like almost everyone else is that they tend to readily accept, and even prefer, the anatomy with which they were born.[...]

A friend of mine (Sunny) was unsurprised that almost no conjoined twins want to be separated. While some may think that conjoined twins could not be happy, she would think you couldn't be happy with major physical trauma. Well put, I think.

Friday, 21 January 2011

7 Quick Takes (72)

1. Lots of photography. We've had snow, rain, and sun over the last two weeks, so I've had varied photographic opportunities. I will upload some of them.
2. I've been enjoying my classes. Reported Speech is a lot of fun, in the sort of way that fuses theory and grammatical technicality together in highly localized instances.
In my Research Methods class we visited the Rare Books Collection of the library, where we got to browse through old folios of Shakespeare; an old Milton; part of the best Alice in Wonderland collection in the world; the letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (but they didn't take out Christina's for us to see, alas); the archives (fonds) of Douglas Coupland; old versions of Burns. We also got to see inside the Vault.
And who could complain about a Shakespeare and Marlowe course?

3. Recently I have expanded my musical listening habits to include Tchaikovsky and Bach. I have Melissa to thank for Bach: I have Anna to thank for Tchaikovsky.

4. On Tuesday evening I went to an Ecumenical Service at St. Mark's Chapel. It's out of my diocese, so I would not have known about it were it not for Melissa, who invited me. It was ecumenical and so not especially Catholic, which I had expected and sort of hoped for. The chapel space was not what I had expected of a Catholic church; it was not especially ornamented, for instance. There were crucifixes instead of crosses, but some Protestant churches use crucifixes anyway.

5. On Wednesday evening I went to a Centring Prayer service at St. Faith's. It reminded me a lot of Buddhist meditation. (It's interesting to note that that's what I compare it to; I've had more experience with Buddhist meditation in my Religious Studies classes in undergrad than I have had with Christian meditative prayer.) I am a clear beginner, so it's not unexpected that I spent most of the time in the thrall of monkey-mind (a Buddhist term, but if you have any experience with any meditative exercise, I think you can figure out what it means).
What is perhaps more surprising is how long it took me to come out again. I wasn't exactly sleepy, but I was quiet, slow to respond, detached.
There will be other services like this one (2-3 times a month), and I shall likely attend them.

6. Last Saturday I went on a trip across Vancouver looking for materials with which to make a top-secret craft gift. First I went to the Public Library (not really for the gift, though I did take a look for books there that might help me), then to West Broadway, then to Richmond' Aberdeen Centre. This last I poked around a little bit; I was rather conspicuous as the only white guy under 45 in a fairly populated mall.

7. I am concerned about my career prospects. Somehow the job prospects are even worse than we thought they were. ("We" being the English grads. Most of us will not become professors, it seems.) While I haven't given up entirely on the goal of being a professor, I am both aware that I might not get that job after all and that I might not want it even if I got it. So I am on the look-out for new job prospects. I am giving serious thought to a Master's of Library Science (in which having another Master's is a very very good thing); I am also wondering whether there could be work in copy-editing/proof-reading. Finally, I spoke today with my priest's husband, who told me about church-related avenues I might look into.
Somewhat related to this, I am going to treat writing and researching as a full time job this summer. I haven't quite worked out the details, but I'm excited and nervous about this. It will be the first time since high school that I took a summer "off", but I will be very busy (I hope) producing a substantial amount of prose and/or poetry. I want to see if writing is something I can really do after all.

That's all. (I did 7 Quick Takes! Thanks to Leah and Cait for your concerns.)
Jennifer Fulwiler hosts this blog carnival. Please visit her for more.
I must apologise. I did intend to do something like a 7 Quick Takes today. Some people do follow my blog because they know me personally and would like to know what I'm up to. It has been an interesting two weeks, worthy of comment here. But I'm not even remotely in a headspace which would allow me to write a coherent post. I'm scattered, tired, jittery.

I want you to know I'm thinking about you. I will communicate. Just not today.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

After Much Consideration...

...I must inform you that I may not regularly update this blog in the immediate future. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from time commitments to concerns that I need to rethink what I am doing with this medium and whether I am doing it correctly. This is not to say that I will be leaving forever, closing the blog down, or never looking at the material my fellow bloggers produce. Rather, I am limiting my Internet exploration time so that I can proceed with other things important in my life, so I may only post sporadically. Do not expect 7 Quick Takes each week any longer. I may or I may not do it. It depends.

(This has been some time coming; I've been skimpy on posts for a while.)

Monday, 10 January 2011

2010 Review is Complete!

My 2010 review entitled "2010 in 10 Books" is finished. Please go take a look. (It's really long, though.)

Friday, 7 January 2011

7 Quick Takes (71)

1. I gave up Coke. Please notice the capitalization. It makes a difference.
It's a New Year's thing. I've done this before; I will give up more on Lent, either all carbonated drinks or all caffeinated drinks. It's been hard as is (I probably have an addiction to it), so this is like not quitting cold turkey. I'll do it in stages. In the meantime, my tea intake is skyrocketing. To think I used to dislike tea.
(That I am contemplating drinks is interesting in light of Penny Arcade's arc this week. Don't click through if you're sensitive to language. Don't finish the link if you dislike body horror.)

2. Jon visited on Saturday. That is, he returned to Fort McMurray; my mother and I got him at the airport and had him over for dinner.

3. And then I flew back to Vancouver on Sunday. It was fine: no turbulence at all, I had an open seat next to me on both legs of the journey, and it's a lot shorter than I'm used to.

4. I finished a paper on Monday. It was one of those things that wasn't hard to do but was hard to motivate oneself to do.

5. I had my first class of the term on Tuesday. It seems like fun. It's on reported speech. One of the assignments calls on us to eavesdrop on people and record when they use reported speech. Each week we bring examples to the class and by the year's end we will have compiled a corpus of examples of reported speech. That's not all there is to it--There Will Be Theory--but I will enjoy it. I already have examples to bring in next Tuesday. One of those examples is a cheat, though, as I used something someone said to me during a conversation.
I recognize that the mechanics and theory of reported speech may not sound like fun to other people. I do recognize that. Really.
I watched Fire and So I Married an Axe Murder in the afternoon. They are very different movies.

6. On Wednesday I saw a greater number of my friends again! Well, that's not strictly true. I played TA in a lecture, during which I saw M. and K. (I need standard nomenclature for people I refer to not-by-name. I should look back and see what I called M. previously.) And then spent the rest of the day, pretty much, with M.
It was on Thursday that I saw most of my friends who I had not seen up until that point, or who I hadn't had a chance to speak to at length. That was nice. And I had lunch with...oh, man, it's another M. Initials won't work. Male M., as opposed to Female M., in the previous paragraph.

7. Today I TA'd my new discussion group and it went well. We discussed how people frequenty misread and misquote (not in the sense of getting the phrasing wrong but in using it to mean something that it doesn't mean in the context of the poem) "The Road Not Taken." The prof directed us (both TAs and students) to look at a ad which uses a truncated version of the poem and compare this to the original. Folks, including the ad company script writers, often refer to this poem as an American icon which emphasizes confidence, decisiveness, and individuality. The last lines, after all, read, "I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." What's funny is that the poem is about the road not taken; it's about the road the speaker doesn't take. It's about regret, about being uncertain of your choices both when you make them and after you look back upon them. If this in any way surprises or upsets you, I suggest you read the poem. Please notice that a) the speaker perpetually dithers about things, b) that the roads are virtually indistinguishable, c) that he figures he'd plan on trying the other road out if he got the opportunity, and d) that he's not sure he made the right choice. Those final lines seem more ironic in light of the whole poem; they seem like the speaker's attempt to assert that he made the right choice, even though we can see (and he can see) that it's far from clear that he did.
By the way, it might be worth mentioning that Archie Comics, in the Archie Marries Veronica/Archie Marries Betty release, seems to give a bit more of a nuanced reading of this poem from what I can tell on Wikipedia and from the interview with Michael Uslan (writer of that plot arc and producer of almost every modern Batman movie, including the ones with Christian Bale). I haven't actually read the comic, though, so I suppose I should reserve that judgement.
In the afternoon I went to Coffee Hour and it, too, was good. I talked with some people I like talking to and also talked to people with whom I do not talk much. That's important. I am strengthening bonds all around.

That's it for me! Make sure you go see Jennifer Fulwiler, host of this carnival.
[Edit: I have updated my 2010 review in books post. I plan to finish it this weekend if not tonight, so I suggest you go look at it.]

Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010 in 10 Books

Subtitle: Because I'm a Huge Nerd Like That

[Once I posted the first bit I realized that this post will be enormous when it's done. This is going to rival some of Jon's stuff.]

I don't usually get too worked up about New Year's Eve; the arbitrariness of it prevents my taking it seriously. That being said, many people treat it as a point of reflection on the last secular calendar year and since I love collective actions--especially on the Interwebs--I shall indulge in a bit of the same. Thus I shall do a review of the year in books. (I couldn't really think of any other topic and, anyway, I'm a huge nerd.) I will note that I recommend all of these books to everyone, provided you are a critical reader and not a mindlessly absorptive one. (I'm pretty sure you're the former.)

1. Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

This was likely the first book I read in 2010. Leacock gives us an episodic account of life in a small Ontario town shortly after Confederation. The genre is emphatically a comedy. I loved it. It reminded me of my own country-boy roots and with my increasingly urban living conditions this is something I like. Perhaps the removal from the rural space was necessary for me to fully appreciate this book. The epilogue after all makes it quite clear that it is written for an audience that is removed from the small town but nonetheless remembers that life. I don't know how well this registers with people who have lived their whole lives in urban culture (though Cait likes it, maybe she can tell us why); for me, the sharp and almost accusatory nostalgia of the book's final pages forced me to become aware of my own urban position.

I can no longer orient myself as being in the country, in the small town. Fort McMurray--where I lived reading the book, where I am writing this--is not a small town. It's not a metropolis like Toronto or Vancouver and I know lots of people from metropolises (metropoles?) see anything smaller than Edmonton as a small town, but compared to most communities Fort McMurray is large. It's just isolated and lacks certain amenities. Kingston, the city in which I had most recently built a full life when I was reading this book, is no small town, either. Recognizing that I am more urbanite than hick was an odd thing for me and is something with which I am still coming to terms. I prefered thinking of myself as a hick than as an urbanite largely because I like thinking of myself as having an outsider's perspective.

The second lesson I got from this book is that one can mix idyll and irony. The narrator treats the characters--and perhaps himself--with a gentle mockery which makes you like them more, not less. This is important: we can still care for the characters in spite of, maybe because of, their faults. This book is built on this blend more than anything else. Humanity is flawed right through, but we're nonetheless likeable. What's important is that the narrator could have presented the characters as flawed and unlikeable, but instead chose to gently, caringly point out these flaws. That specific chosen perspective is an important one.

2. Wade Davis' The Wayfinders

The emotion of the posts that this book spawned should indicate its importance to my 2010. The import of this book comes on two levels.

First, the premise of this book is eye-opening and perhaps liberating: Davis thinks of non-Western civilizations as ones that have the same creative intellectual resources that we have but invested those resources not into the Enlightenment project but into other endeavours entirely. Most of his book explores different endangered cultures which exemplify his premise. I think this is a very important idea, not only in countering the ideas of liberal progress that run rampant through our culture, but also in giving us ways of re-imagining what our society could be like if we started doing things differently. In this respect Davis' book is one of hope, that hope that things can be different.

Unfortunately, opening one's eyes can be a painful experience. The reason Davis' book is hopeful, not complacent, is that there are a lot of things wrong with the world today. As a result, this book sent me into a week-long bout of hopelessness, nigh on despair, with the state of the world. The aftershocks are on-going. This book then marked the beginning of my rocky relationship with the entire idea of hope. I am still working on what kinds of hope are productive and what kinds of hope are deadly.

3. Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light

If The Wayfinders sent me into despair, A Ring of Endless Light helped me get back out of it. This is a young adult novel about a girl named Vicky dealing with death: the recent death of a family friend, the impending death of her grandfather, the deaths of animals (birds, dolphins), the death-seeking of a potential lover. The book is therefore also about love, the full spectrum of friendly, familial, and romantic. Vicky has three potential lovers, and so it triggered one of my theoretical interests (polyamory), but this was not the most fulfilling part of the book. The novel's treatment of love and death coalesce into an exploration into the role hope plays in a dark world.

It is this interest in hope that made the book important to me. I read it following The Wayfinders and this book was part of what pulled me out of that slump. Others will tell you that it's a beautiful book but to me in particular, at that moment, it was necessary. It has also been part of the context in which I have worked through ideas of hope. This is an on-going project, one I can date as beginning in 2010 but cannot date as ending there, as it has not yet ended.

The primary downside to this book is that, like most of L'Engle's books, it made me self-conscious about my own lack of life experiences. Having hit fewer 'maturity markers' than a teenage protagonist is a bit depressing. I hope that my earstwhile readers will not have similar experiences reading it.

4. Walter Truett Anderson's The Truth About the Truth

I picked this up used in a Goodwill; I realized that I didn't really know what postmodernism was and thought remedying that would be a good idea. As it turned out I had been trained in postmodernism for four years at university and just hadn't encountered it as a coherent, labeled theoretical framework. That story is here, here, and here. I am not a postmodernist--I believe in truth, for instance--but I recognize that many of the insights that postmodernism has produced are relevant and important. Postmodernism has significantly changed how I view human identity and has been important upon returning to an English Department. This book not only helped me understand in retrospect exactly what it was I did in much of my undergrad, but it helped me understand the culture in which I will be studying and working for the next few years (at least).

I am not done with postmodernism yet; while I do not agree with the whole package, it has importantly impacted by ongoing thinking. Expect future posts clarifying this.

5. John Milton's Paradise Lost

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. (I'm classifying it as a book, even though that designation doesn't quite work.) I was supposed to have finished reading it a long time ago and decided that it was time. Theologically it's iffy but poetically it works fairly well. I am still confused about the number of pro-Satan readings I hear people produce; having read it straight through now I agree that Satan is a charismatic and understandable villain, but he is nonetheless a villain. What is fascinating is Milton's ability to remain ambiguous about the Ptolemaic versus Copernican universes while elaborately describing the world. Beyond which it's beautiful poetry.

I include PL not only because I finished and enjoyed it, but because I recognize it as one of the touchstones of our current culture. Its vision of the Christian universe has had a lasting impact on societal and cultural understanding of religion (which is ironic, considering it's theological iffiness), and its images have been revisited and revised in subsequent literature. If anything, it has reminded me that drawing on the ideas and images of predecessors is an honourable, perhaps necessary, literary enterprise. Whether or not it has all been said before, it can still be said again, differently. There is still room for poetry.

6. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

If you ever thought reading fiction is unimportant, you may want to read this book. It is non-fiction about how reading fiction is important, especially when the going gets tough. In these memoirs, Azar Nafisi recounts her time as a professor of English in post-revolutionary Iran teaching students, including and particularly a group of young women, how to read the classics: how to read them critically, yes, but also how to learn from them. Thus the novel is divided into four sections called "Lolita," "Gatsby," "James," and "Austen." She deals with the intersections of the attempt to control others' dreams and censorship, the intersections between the refusal to accept uncertainty in fiction and the refusal to accept uncertainty in personal beliefs, and the intersections between the failure to understand characters and the failure to empathize with real people. Nafisi's life, the other characters' lives, and her observations on Iran are captivating enough to make an interesting book, but the moral strength of the book earns it a place on this list.

If you have read some of my past posts about fantasy or the suspension of disbelief, you will recognize some similar themes. This book has impacted my thinking and has rekindled my faith in the power of and study of literature. In case you were unaware, it is all but a professional requirement that students of literature agonize over their own relevance. Reading Lolita in Tehran has convinced me all over again that reading fiction matters.

7. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics

When you move from a high style or theme to a low style or theme, it is called bathos. That is what's happening with Book #7. Where Nafisi's book was inspirational, McCloud's book is fun, interesting, at best instructive.

McCloud's Understanding Comics explores sequential art, the technical term McCloud gives for comics and graphic novels. His interest is not in superheroes, though; his interest is in the form itself. What happens in the gutter (the space between panels)? Is there a difference between realistically-rendered characters and cartoon ones? How does sequential art relate to other forms of art?

McCloud's Reinventing Comics digs into much more technical elements of drawing, panelling, inking, etc., but even in this he is often very theoretical and many of his concerns apply to all artistic production. Thus if Understanding Comics is more interesting to people who are interested in comics (or the rare duck like me who is interested in genres generally (haha! PUN!)), Reinventing Comics has something to offer anyone involved in the production of narrative art. It is in this book that he also unveils an idea about artistic motivations, which he calls campfire. I began exploring that idea and, to those interested in that exploration, I do intend to finish it sometime. Maybe.

8. The Book of Alternative Services

I borrowed this from St. Thomas' in Fort McMurray. I may have taken it with me to Vancouver. If I did not intend to return it this might bear some resemblance to theft. Which would be ironic, right? (There's a scene in M*A*S*H where Father Mulcahy discovers Klinger has been selling him stolen Bibles. I tried to find it on YouTube but no luck. Sorry, folks.)

To those not in the know, The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada is the standard book for Canadian Anglican services. It contains the responsive readings that characterize any Anglican service; the BAS is important in churches that do not use projector screens because this is how the congregation knows how to respond during certain parts of the liturgy. This is especially true of seasonal events and prayers, as congregation members could not possibly be expected to memorize responses they use once a year. You can get a PDF of the full text here.

My first encounter with the BAS was in St. Pauls' Lutheran Church, the swamp church I attended during my elementary school and high school years. After Confirmation (grade 8), however, I stopped attending services upstairs and stayed downstairs to teach Sunday school. In university I went to a non-liturgical church, so it wasn't until I attended St. Thomas' that I encountered liturgical services again. While a child I respected but did not understand or appreciate liturgy. I was afraid of getting things wrong; it seemed like it was all rules for their own sakes. I found that I missed liturgy in university, especially as the sort of church I went to had unspoken expectations (which are even worse, in my opinion, than written ones). It was therefore with great relief that I discovered St. Thomas had responsive readings, albs, acolytes, and coloured vestments. It was like coming home.

At the end of 2009 I began training to be a server, but I did not borrow the BAS until 2010. I borrowed it so that I could better learn my role as a server and I also thought about using my literary analytical skills on it, but instead I have mainly used it like a book of poetry. For some reason I love reading the Penitential Rite (page 46 of the PDF I linked to); I can say it from memory but I still read it from the page, savouring its rhythm. (OK, I'm weird.) Perhaps part of my appreciation of it is that I know it is all true when I saw it; it is a performative truth.

This is not why I include this book in the list, though. I include it because I am finding myself more and more in love with liturgy. It is a complicated love, for sure; I do not know absolutely that it is enough, or that I understand how to use it to approach God as fully as I would like. But it offers a lot. I find narrative, symbol, and structure powerful tools and liturgy uses them well; I find liturgical language is beautiful and can reveal the beauty of God; I find the communitarian elements of corporate speech and act also useful during Communion. (I am using "Communion" over the more typically Anglican "Eucharist" to make a etymological point.) The BAS is the crux of my liturgical experiences both in St. Thomas, Fort McMurray and St. Faith's, Vancouver, and this is why it makes this list.

9. Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan

This play, about the revolution, trial, and death of Joan d'Arc, was assigned to the class for which I was a TA last term. I had never read Shaw's plays before, though I had seen Caesar and Cleopatra at the Festival. I found Saint Joan to be a quick and enjoyable read; it is also substantial enough for an English major like me to have fun with. Given that I was teaching the text to the class, after the professor for the class gave it a lecture, I decided that that's what I would do in discussion: we would have fun with it.

I went in early and arranged the room so that in the midst of the tables was a set, with chairs and tables set up according to the stage directions. When the students came in, I cast them in roles and we played out Joan's trial. It was one of the best classes I had; I had many volunteers to read the parts and there was no problem getting the non-actors to comment on the action. Every so often I would stop the play and we would comment on what just happened, focusing on specific characters and asking them to describe how the stage itself impacts their character's emotional state and so forth.

Saint Joan is a fun, quick, and easy read, but it's substantial enough to hold one's interest (or at least my own). In it Shaw is not interested in the truth of religious claims, but in how religion and politics intersect on the social stage. That in and of itself is an interesting literary choice. Like Shaw, I consistently had to separate the truth of religious claims for how religion operates with texts. This wasn't a challenge insofar as I never want to proselytize but it was a challenge insofar as I was wary of students misreading atheist propaganda into the assigned readings (many students of many backgrounds did this; it seems that to lots of students, whether Christian, atheist, or agnostic, there are unrecognized athiests hiding in the canon). But it's not why I include it on the list. I include it on the list as one success as a TA. It changed the dynamics of the class and it got us on our feet. It was fun and critically detailed. You can't ask for much more than that.

10. Linda Medley's Castle Waiting Vol. 1

With the exception of the largely unplacable Book of Alternative Services, this list has been chronological--until now. If I were to insert Castle Waiting Vol. 1 properly, it would have to precede Paradise Lost, the reading of which I interrupted to read this graphic novel. However, this book may have been the most important and therefore deserving of the capping #10 spot, and its direct influence continues into 2011, which also justifies its placement at the end of the list.

Castle Waiting is about the eponymous castle, in which a number of adventures happen. At first it follows the story of Sleeping Beauty in an extended prologue, but following this the story changes signficantly: Castle Putney is all but abandoned and becomes Castle Waiting, a sanctuary for assorted runaways and misfits. The story travels with Lady Jain, pregnant and battered, as she flees her husband and her reputation to the legendary refuge. Upon her arrival, the story shifts again, becoming a catalogue of the daily adventures and exchanges of the Castle's residents (Rackham the anthropomorphic stork, Simon the large and simple boy, the heartbroken Iron Henry, Sister Peace of the Order Solicitine, the reclusive and perpetually masked Dr. Fell, numerous Poltersprites...), as well as the long biographical tales Sister Peace tells involving bearded women, a travelling circus with gypsies and giantesses and conjoined twins, a woman martyr and her developing hagiography, and a greedy mill owner. It deserves the description on the back of the book: "A set of linked nouveaux fairy tales, this graphic novel extends the story of Sleeping Beauty into a modern, feminist Chaucer."

I was visiting my brother while he worked on his group film when his girlfriend and co-animator lent me her copy of the book to read between scanning for them and going on sushi-and-juice runs. I loved it immediately and the book stayed in my mind thereafter. When I got to Vancouver I decided I wanted to own it and promptly took the opportunity of numerous Chapters to make that happen. I re-read it.

The first reason that this book is significant is that it told me in no uncertain terms that you can have a successful fantasy (in this case more fairy-tale-esque, but the line between the two is indistinct if extant) book without making it an adventure story with wars and monsters. That's not to say that the book is without suspense or risk, but rather its emphases are friendship, community, redemption, sanctuary, and storytelling. This book is a powerful reminder that fantasy can be a lot more than it usually is. Which is to say, Castle Waiting has changed my idea of what sorts of things I would like to write.
The second reason that this book is significant is that I lent it to Melissa. She loved it as much as I did and we spoke about it for some time, speculating what would happen next, what fairytales all of the characters came from, and so forth. I also recommended it to Cait and to Julia, a friend from back home. If I recall correctly, Cait also liked it. (Did I get that right?) And then, just before I returned home for Christmas, I lent it to The Rev'd Paula +, the priest at St. Faith's. (I found out today, Jan 9, that she loved it--as did Owen, who I presume is a child.) I bought my brother's girlfriend Vol. 2, which my brother bought me for Christmas. (Melissa is currently reading my copy of it and has lent me a book she got for Christmas. So it goes into 2011...) This book has become, though repeated recommendations, lendings, and givings, a social nexus connecting me to a large number of people spread over significant geographical distances. The people it has connected me to are also very important to me and it has helped strengthen those bonds. I think, given the themes and mood of the book, that Linda Medley would be pleased.

Honourable Mentions: Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion; Heather O'Neill's lullabies for little criminals; somebody or another's Saturday; Michael Ingham's The Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World; Coetzee's The Life & Times of Michael K; Gruen's Water for Elephants; Kostova's The Historian

Some Thoughts on the Decision to Review 2010 by Means of Books

With a few exceptions, reviewing my year through books makes me look like a shut-in who has no friends. I would like to say this is untrue, but I think the specific books chosen makes clear that it was true and stopped being so. I only have three books that relate to my time in Vancouver, and two of those are more related to my time in Fort McMurray. (I have also lent The Wayfinders out, but it has played a far less important social role than Castle Waiting has.) This is directly related to the sorts of books I read in Vancouver: I read assigned material. The syllabus is often interesting and mentally enriching but it does not impact my life in the same way these ten books have. (In fact, the only one that made the Honourable Mentions is Coetzee's.) More importantly, however, books in general have not impacted me as much because people impact me more, and you can see this in the final three books. The first (or eighth) is liturgical and concerns my place within churches; the second (or ninth) was assigned and concerns my role as a TA; the third (or tenth) became a social artifact and concerned my relationship with friends. We thus see a shift from introverted significances to extraverted significances in the books I have chosen, and I think that is reflective of 2010 itself.
Next year, perhaps, I will be able to offer you 2011 in 11 somethings other than books.

Or maybe I'm too much of a bookworm for that to ever be likely.
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