Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The New Doctor (Jillian)

I read bits of an interview this week with Matt Smith, the eleventh incarnation of our beloved Doctor. The more I know about him, the more I like him... and the more curious I am to see him in the TARDIS.

Apparently, he carries a sonic screwdriver with him at all times... to twist around in his fingers or play with. He was recently stopped at Heathrow for walking through security with it on his person, and he's broken at least four of them so far.

And - I love this - in order to get acquainted with his new role, he wrote short stories involving adventures of the Doctor with Albert Einstein as his sidekick. His inspiration: the famous photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue.

The Future of Reading (Jillian)

I have to say, I just read a Newsweek article by Anna Quindlen - "Reading Has a Strong Future". I found it wonderfully hopeful about the future of writing and literacy in our increasingly technological age. As iPads and Kindles have made their debut into the world, there has been a pressing question... whether or not they will eventually replace books... and whether or not that is a terrible thing. I encourage you to read it for yourself!!

Some of my favorite snippets:

"The invention of television led to predictions about the demise of radio. The making of movies was to be the death knell of live theater; recorded music, the end of concerts. All these forms still exist—sometimes overshadowed by their siblings, but not smothered by them."

"There is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction. That's because they're really judgments on human nature."

"Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self; that's why it survives. There are book clubs and book Web sites and books on tape and books online. There are still millions of people who like the paper version, at least for now. And if that changes—well, what is a book, really? Is it its body, or its soul?"

(Soul! SOUL!!!!)


Innovations like this have happened before. Television and radio. Movies and theatre. Typewriters and legal pads. And now books and kindle. Notice that books are still holding their own in our culture. No one has abandoned them yet. These innovations are simply creating new options for enjoying literature, not erasing it or taking it for granted. Kindles and iPads and whatever new inkling of genius that follows will still convey that flame... readers will read, writers will write.

And honestly, I don't think books will disappear as fast as some people fear. ;)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Creeped Out - Hitler the Artist (Jillian)

Something has been bugging me for a while now - one of those little current events that surfaces now and then. It is coming to light more and more recently that Adolf Hitler, before he became the monster that history has proved him to be, was an artist. His paintings and etchings are on auction blocks and expected to fetch millions.

Yes, this creeps me out, and I am certain I'm not overreacting. To put "a Hitler" alongside, say, "a Monet" is inconcievable to me.

Art is powerful, no matter what the medium. It speaks volumes. It touches the soul. It is almost ineffable, sacred. That is why writing and painting and photography and dance, etc, etc, are incredibly important - they are created out of the struggles, triumphs and musings of the human spirit. If those creations are from Hitler, I want to stay as far away from them as possible. Not that I am worried about subliminal messages... but that anything I'd see is tainted by the knowledge of the Holocaust. It isn't the sort of art that belongs on a wall, displayed in glory.

Some art is visually disturbing and is meant to be. Just look at Francisco Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his children. (You might want to google it; I really don't want to post that horror here.) I cannot look at it without incurring nightmares. In Hitler's case, it is disturbing in the historical context that cannot be erased or forgotten on an auction block.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Matter with Women's Fiction (Jillian)

On the today, (honestly, where else?) an interesting little article by Jojo Moyes sprang up about women’s fiction being unsufferably miserable. “There’s not been much wit and not much joy; there’s a lot of grimness out there… There are a lot of books about Asian sisters […], a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing,” says Daisy Goodwin, who is an Orange Prize judge.

Moyes sympathizes but ultimately concludes: “We’re damned for writing fluffy, upbeat chick-lit about shoes and cake, damned if we write about domestic abuse within a geo-political conflict… the biggest problem facing ‘women’s fiction’ (a term that is patronizing in itself) is that critics still don’t take it seriously.”

I found this article to be spotlighting the trends I see splattered and scattered on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, etc. By my estimation, a good 75 to 80 percent of modern “literature” on the market these days is this brand of writing – the fluffy, brainless kind, or the agonizing kind. So many of these are written by women. Even without having read many of them (listening to my gut instincts and running in the other direction), I’ve been wary of the great disparity between too much fluff and too little joy… mediocre microcosms of dysfunctional realities and self-indulgences. Very few of these novels seem to offer much in the way of “great literature”, but that is what sells. And, unfortunately, it is hard to tell the difference between literature and shelf-filler.

I remember back to my wrath over the historical fiction blunder The Illuminator (Brenda Rickman Vantrease), wherein the lady of a 14th century manor lauds the death of her husband who, as if you couldn’t guess, was an abuser; she has an affair with the illuminator who works out of her home; has to deal with the sexual innocence and unwanted pregnancies of the teenage children in her care (her son, the illuminator’s daughter)… even going so far as to attempt an abortion. (It seems so emotionally 21st century, I wanted to throw up.) Strategically-timed to coincide with the events of the Peasants’ Revolt, the lady’s twin sons end up killing each other, she is raped by the evil steward, and a poor, misunderstood dwarf marries the girl of his dreams. Sorry if I spoiled it for you, but believe me, I am saving you the trouble of wasting fifteen dollars… in case you happen to see its pretty cover and are lured in.

I am still trying to understand it. Again, to use Michelle’s term, this “emotional unkindness” about the past – especially an era of time that seems so cruel and backwater to our “enlightened” culture– is merely an excuse to fabricate a situation and write about misery and violence and its stereotypical manifestations, instead of a.) putting the 14th century in any sort of accurate or enlightened perspective; b.) showing exceptions to stereotypes, and making the characters more than empty vessels fulfilling predictable roles; and/or c.) to show any semblence of inner strength, redemption or character evolution to conclude and save a bitter story. No, this novel ends in rampant deaths… none of them peaceful, either. No fluffy, sugary or smiley-faced endings here. Just a high body count.

So… if I want to win a literary prize, I need to cram as much visceral misery as I can into my novel, a story about orphans or an abused and/or neglicted wife (regardless of whether or not I am one). But if I want to gain a huge reader following and lead the market, I must write about how much I like chocolate. Because, evidently, I am a woman and cannot write about anything else. (Or so it seems.)

As a woman who is a writer, I feel left out of this on-going discussion. My work doesn’t feel particularly feminine or fluffy or miserable… nor do I want it to be. It isn’t that I am deliberately running from the above mode of “women’s fiction” but that the stories I feel compelled to write are not restricted to them. I am interesting in more than one plain of existence… in breaking down barriers in literary themes and seeing where the writing takes me… not where I take it. I am not interested in having an audience primarily made up of women, but of men, as well.

I feel the camps of “the market” and “the critics” do not and cannot dictate my creativity or my taste in books. Neither can probably measure or answer why I get so much more out of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Susanna Clarke or Flannery O’Connor than I do from anything that is “marketed” in my general (very general) direction. Not because they are women - because they write (or, wrote, as they case may be), stories that are not the status quo. Perhaps this means, scary thought, that I am thinking and writing less like a woman (gasp!) and more like… a writer!

Not, to clarify, that it this a matter of down playing my feminity, but not making it the sole source or shape of my creative fire.


(P.S. Susanna Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is set in the early 19th century… Strange and Norrell are two competing magicians. Most of the characters are men, and yet this does not prevent Susanna from being true to her characters, male or female, or creating a fantastic, magically-intricate world. She is an exception to the “rule.”)

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Future of Story-telling (Jillian)

I grew up on the Star Trek: The Next Generation notion of the holodeck, literally a room where you could create/recreate your own worlds, your favorite stories as a form of recreation or escape. I enjoyed the idea of the characters of the show transporting themselves into Sherlock Holmes (does anyone remember which characters??) or Shakespeare - literally to interact with well-loved stories instead of just reading them or just merely watching the DVD.

These days, I am not so sure that's a good thing. This comes up as I'm reading an article on possible sequels for James Cameron's juggernaut 3D film Avatar. The producer for Avatar, Jon Landau, has said recently: "I don't think we will ever make another 2D film. Why would we make a movie in black and white if we have color? I think ultimately all movies are going to be in 3-D."

Really? All movies in 3D? I beg to differ. I don't deny what 3D films have brought to the movie-making industry - yes, it is innovative, clever and cutting-edge. But does it really tell the story better? Having seen Avatar, I can answer "No," with complete confidence. While the visual effects were breath-taking, the story was allowed to hover on the level of cliches and stereotypes... the same themes of the evil Americans plotting destruction of a Nature-worshipping native culture. Critics had every right to snicker and mutter "Dances with Wolves in space."

With this in mind, I cannot envision the future of film as an art form to be a very good one. Film is story-telling. When the writing is poor, everything else about the film suffers. But that doesn't seem to matter to an industry that sees dollar signs instead of innovations of the human spirit.

What I enjoyed about Avatar's technology was hardly the 3D eye candy. It was Cameron's ability to digitally create Pandora and recreate the actors to fit that world. Like turning Andy Serkis into Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the doors are opened to turning actors into characters or create landscapes, animals, epic battles that couldn't otherwise be rendered with stunt-doubles and models. 3D is a sugar coating that makes all of those things feel as though they're surrounding you. But objects jumping out at you from the screen isn't anything more than a distraction and a catalyst for a headache. If you happen to be sitting in the middle of a theatre and the 3D glasses don't bother you... or if you don't have any conflicting vision problems, perhaps this isn't such a problem.

Avatar's severe story-deficiencies remind me of George Lucas' prequel Star Wars Trilogy. The script was poorly developed, and a green-screen created backdrop of a galaxy far, far away could not save the story. It was a profound disappointment and made me cling to the original trilogy all the more strongly. The prequels look more like a computer game than a film with the actors feeling like puppets rather than players. And honestly, I want a story, not a headache. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. 2D, Mr. Landau and Mr. Cameron, isn't a technological backwater; it is a medium - a canvas - that works and has worked for decades... because nothing can ever quite be the holodeck.

That is a good thing. Our personal imaginations need not be superseded by someone else's delusions of grandeur. Eye-candy is seems just an excuse not to be able to think and create for oneself.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Middlemarch (Jillian)

Recently, I have read George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch. For those of you who have heard of the novel but have no idea what it could possibly be about or whether or not it is actually “any good”, it is a novel of interconnected lives in the fictional town of – you guessed it – Middlemarch, set in the 1830s, written in the 1870s. Much like Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Cranford, it is set in a time of transition and reform when the railroads are beginning to weave their way across England. It is well worth reading.

One of its most dominant themes is marriage, but what makes it different from, say, Pride and Prejudice or other familiar 19th century romances, is that it is a solemn, sober view of marriage… primarily marriages made for the wrong reasons like money, social standing or a want of usefulness. One of the two primary plotlines involve Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent, feeling woman who has strong ambitions for doing good in the world, who marries a dreary clergyman-scholar, Mr. Casaubon, for his “great soul.” The other plotline focuses on the young, reform-minded doctor Lydgate who falls in love with and marries the beautiful but spoiled Rosamond Vincy. Lydgate falls into debt; Dorothea into disappointment. Eliot’s narration switches back and forth almost seamlessly between them, as part of the gossip-y, political, socially precarious life of Middlemarch (how rumor painted and ruined people before Twitter took over the world). It is a novel of many interwoven stories: the struggles of Fred Vincy, the mayor’s son (and Rosamond’s brother), as he endeavors to clear himself of reckless debts and marry plain and practically-minded Mary Garth; the story of Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s wayward cousin, who falls in love with Dorothea; the reign of Mr. Bulstrode, the richest man in town who proclaims to be a man of God, but may have had a shadowy beginning. Above all, it is a beautiful tapestry. It is dense in places, sober and painful, and yet redemptive, bringing Dorothea, Lydgate and others out of the storm of uncertainty into a sunrise soaked with peace, if not raptures.

Another thing that made this novel fascinating was the version of Middlemarch I bought over a year ago in a local used book store. The copy right date is 1957, and I’ve had to repair its cover with packing tape lest it should completely come apart. But that’s not the most exciting bit. The stranger who owned the book before me – a mysterious person known as C.W. Mignon (yes, like filet mignon) wrote intensive commentary on the inside cover and on many of the pages… underlining, analyzing and sometimes spewing frustrated opinions in the margins. It makes me wonder if Mr/Ms Mignon was an English teacher or a student writing an essay, as he/she underlines passages. He or she also draws comparisons between Eliot’s style and that of Dickens or Fielding… noting Eliot’s “multiple selective omniscience” and drawing connections of character types with Will, Dorothea, Fred and Caleb Garth… pointing out “casual relations” between actions of characters, and the moral evolutions that mark their journeys. Then at some points you’ll see CW scrawled in the margins, especially when Rosamond is being unreasonable about Lydate’s solutions to their money problems, “stupid bitch” or “he’s so damned cold” to vent frustration on Casaubon. Believe me, CW, such things pain me, too.

I believe "the posse" refers to Dorothea's determination
Lydgate in the narration
Character description

I appreciate the ability to write out one’s understanding in the margins of a book, even if it may seem like reiterating the obvious. (Admittedly, many times I think, “Okay, CW, I understand that Rosamond is intolerably spoilt. Must we use such language?” “Yes, CW, I understand perfectly well that the narrator is absolutely omniscient. You don’t have to tell me so many times.” “I agree with you; this is a perfect representation of Lydate’s inner thoughts.”) But over all, it is good to have these comments on the page; as though someone was reading along with me, making mile markers to keep on-course with the interwoven story. Middlemarch is not the easiest novel to read, so it is a comfort to know that the previous owner was noticing things too… that the story mattered enough to write these notes… even if they are at times unnecessary or downright blunt.
Using the entire page, a history of England ca. 1830
A working bibliography (p. 1 of 3)

One thing I didn’t realize would be so enjoyable was Eliot’s omniscient narrative style, describing her characters’ modes of thinking in almost comical terms. Her descriptions of things are so precise, poetical and sensual. Here are some of my favorite passages, some funny, some exquisite, some both:

Any human figure standing at ease under the archway in the early afternoon was as certain to attract companionship as a pigeon which has found something worth pecking at…
– p. 682, describing the mode of the gentlemen of the town discussing news/gossip.

If you think it incredible that to imagine Lydgate as a man of family could cause thrills of satisfaction which had anything to do with the sense that she [Rosamond] was in love with him, I will ask you to use your power of comparison a little more effectively, and consider whether red cloth and epaulets have never had an influence of that sort. Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common store according to their appetite.
– p. 161, Rosamond's thought process - Eliot explains in detail.

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
p. 189

Each looked at the other as if they had been two flowers which had opened then and there.
– p. 349, Will and Dorothea

If you want to know more particularly how Mary looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street to-morrow.
– p. 391, George Eliot's descriptions of characters
Everything seemed dreary: the portents before the birth of Cyrus… oh dear! – devout epigrams – the sacred chime of favourite hymns – all alike were as flat as tunes beaten on wood: even the spring flowers and the grass had a dull shiver in them under the afternoon clouds that hid the sun fitfully: even the sustaining thoughts which had become habits seemed to have in them the weariness of long future days in which she would still live with them for her sole companions.
– p. 455, Dorothea returning home from her honeymoon

Driving was pleasant, for rain in the night had laid the dust, and the blue sky looked far off, away from the region of the great clouds that sailed in masses. The earth looked like a happy place under the vast heavens…
– p. 606 Infusing hope into the scenery.

His conscience was soothed by the enfolding wing of secrecy, which seemed just like an angel sent down for his relief.
– p. 678

Animal imagery – “falcon-faced” and “graceful long-necked bird”, “beaver-like noises”
It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off on the bending sky was a pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
– p 750, Eliot speaks through her landscapes.

One little scrap of dialogue, Dorothea to Will:

“… I wonder what your vocation will turn out to be: perhaps you will be a poet?”
“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion – a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.”
“But you leave out the poems,” said Dorothea. “I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem.”
"You are a poem – and that is to be the best part of a poet – what makes up a poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.

One final note: the 1994 miniseries captures the novel spectacularly! Granted, I would have liked the final scene between Will and Dorothea to have shown more of their inner struggles… but in all, it is a very small complaint to make. It is a heavy, long novel, and it has been properly reimagined in film. It might have something to do with Andrew Davies, who has been, as I understand it, the creative force behind other projects such as Wives and Daughters, North and South, and Sense and Sensibility.

Middlemarch: Mr. Casaubon and Dorothea in Rome, with Will Ladislaw looking on.


to a blog by three people who write, for anyone else who wants to write. It's a cruel world for creators, and here we promise support, whimsy, and curiosity that will hopefully keep your pen moving and keyboard tapping!

To read more about why Daedalus Notes exists, click