On wish-fulfillment fantasies January 15, 2014Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, reviews.
Tags: books, daughter of smoke and bone, fantasy novels, laini taylor, memories, nostalgia, paranormal romance, reviews, ya literature, ya paranormal romance
When I was in the early years of secondary school, I invented a character called Amber. She was short, slender and pale, with a cloud of dark hair and one bright blue and one bright green eye (in other words, what I considered the epitome of beauty at the time). She lived in twelfth-century Ireland. Her father was the illegitimate son of an Irish ruler, and her mother was the daughter of a Japanese nobleman. Her Irish grandfather had five children by his first wife, seven by his second, and six illegitimate children, and the entire family had basically carved up the entire west coast of Ireland among themselves through a combination of ruthless diplomacy and strategically tactical marriages. Amber was married to Pagan Kidrouk (that is, she was married to the fictional character on whom I had a massive crush), and they had an ever-increasing brood of perfect children. Pagan had hitched his star to Amber’s family’s cause, and the two of them spent their time riding from relative to relative, keeping the whole family’s quest for political power afloat, forging alliances and seeing off competition. Amber’s younger sisters were in her social circle and they all treated one another with complete respect and love at all times. Even the backstory of how Amber’s parents got together was over-the-top: her father, despairing of ever finding his One True Love™, had mournfully cast a multilingual message in a bottle into the sea in the hope that whoever found it would seek him out and agree to marry him. The bottle wound up in Japan, and Amber’s mother’s decision to marry her Irish father essentially saved her from the events of the Genpei War. The entire story was completely ludicrous.
In other words, she was my teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. Amber joined an existing and ever-expanding cast of alter egos whose stories I recorded in diaries over a series of years beginning in early childhood and continuing for the duration of my time in secondary school. Sometimes I didn’t commit their stories to paper, but rather narrated them to myself in my head as I went about my daily life. They all existed in a range of time periods – some belonged to families of witches in pre-Christian Ireland, others had been captured by Vikings and lived in exile, while others were my contemporaries in late-’90s Australia. These alter-egos shared certain key characteristics and experiences: they were the best at everything they did, they (mostly) had perfect husbands or boyfriends who fell in instant love with them and whose identities were entirely subsumed by the causes that were important to the characters and their families (in other words, they were love interests who required no sacrifices or effort because they existed only to support the characters’ lives), they shared a social circle with their siblings (who were usually younger sisters whose interests aligned perfectly with those of my characters), and they were valued and rewarded for their competence and hard work with acclaim and adoration.
A lot of people treat the wish-fulfillment fantasies of teenage girls as something inherently damaging, ridiculous and embarrassing. I cannot bring myself to participate in such blanket condemnation. I’m much more interested in working out why particular fantasies (especially published fantasies such as the Twilight or Hunger Games series) gain such traction in particular instances. My own (unpublished) fantasies are pretty explicable: I wanted to be loved but feared having to change anything about myself in order to attain it, wanted to be admired and rewarded for what I perceived as my talents, and wanted the kind of relationship with my sister that I saw happening among siblings in my favourite stories. To put it more bluntly, I felt uncomfortable and powerless in my own skin and set about creating stories in which I had power and control. I cannot regret or feel embarrassed about doing so. My alter egos made my teenage years infinitely easier. Whenever I felt frightened or sad, I was usually able to lift my spirits by imagining a better world, and I was able to motivate myself to work or continue at things I found boring by telling myself that my idealised characters wouldn’t give up in the face of boredom or difficulty.
This is not to say that wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed teenage girls should be above scrutiny. Although I believe that they are treated with scorn to a much greater degree than the fantasies aimed at teenage boys or adult men (I don’t see, for example, Batman or James Bond receiving the amount of contemptuous vitriol aimed at Bella Swan or her fellow YA paranormal romance heroines), nothing is above criticism, and reviewers and bloggers should be honest in pointing out things that bother them in media that they encounter. It is with this in mind that I turn to a book that has been receiving a lot of internet buzz among YA reviewers and commentators, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
The main character in this work, Karou, lives a carefree existence as an art student in Prague, flitting from cafe to cafe and hanging out in an interestingly bohemian circle of friends. She has a secret existence as a messenger for the shadowy, supernatural figure Brimstone (who raised her), which enables her to travel instantaneously anywhere in the world. Her position as Brimstone’s protege grants her certain privileges – as long as she has enough currency, she can wish for whatever she wants, even the impossible (such as dyeing her hair permanently blue). In other words, Karou can do what she wants, go wherever she wants, and has a real-world existence that is already pretty cool. However, secrets from her unremembered past slowly begin to catch up with her, and as she is drawn more and more into Brimstone’s world, she realises she is in deadly danger, and that her identity as seventeen-year-old, human Karou is a lie.
So far, so harmless wish-fulfillment. The world Taylor has created is quirky and engaging, and great fun to hang around in. However, there is one element of Daughter and Smoke and Bone that bothered me so intensely that I had to devote the remainder of this blog post to it. Karou has no female friends.
This is not entirely correct. Karou has one female friend, Zuzana, who is a fellow student at the art school. However, Zuzana is marked from the start as being no equal to Karou: she is an ordinary human girl and knows nothing about Karou’s supernatural adventures. And, most importantly, she is already safely paired up with a boyfriend.
Literally every other young female character is portrayed as competition for Karou. Her human ex-boyfriend Kaz (whom Karou doesn’t even much like) acquires a new girlfriend whose sole characteristic seems to be jealousy of Karou. Even Zuzana admits to finding Kaz attractive and castigates Karou for giving him up. And a major plot point hinges on another female character being jealous of Karou’s appearance and envying her the (unwanted) attention she receives from another male character. In this way, Karou is marked as being both more desirable than all other female characters (because multiple male characters pursue her, and her alone) and more discerning (because she rejects the affections of those would-be love interests due to character flaws which are portrayed as being obvious only to her). So not only are the other female characters in competition with Karou, Taylor gives us the impression that they are stupid for doing so, because they appear blind to the flaws in the male characters which only Karou perceives. This is a sadly familiar pattern in wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed at women: we find it in Twilight and its imitations, as well as in a lot of paranormal romance aimed at adult women (such as The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series).
As someone who wrote a story about her book boyfriend being in love with her idealised character, I have a lot of sympathy for teenage (and not-so-teenage) wish-fulfillment fantasies depicting their protagonists being pursued by a multitude of love interests. It’s a powerful trope for girls who may be feeling unlovable or simply baffled at how to have romantic relationships. However, this desire to be desired should not be portrayed at the expense of functional friendships among teenage girls. Portraying all female relationships as inherently competitive and antagonistic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in the real world whereby girls and women view all other girls and women with suspicion, undermining one another instead of supporting each other. I can say from personal experience that it has been extremely rare, from adolescence onward, that my close female friends and I were in competition for the same things (apart from, on occasion, the best grades in class).
I am not saying that there is a moral imperative for YA authors to write every relationship between female characters as being devoid of competition or even hostility. However, when every single such relationship fits this paradigm, I fear we have a problem. It’s the main reason that I will be much more cautious in seeking out works by Laini Taylor in the future. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. It has the dubious honour of being the narrative which caused me to evaluate every text (particularly those aimed at teenage girls) against whether or not its protagonist has (non-antagonistic) female friends. This has become my version of the Bechdel Test. It’s not a perfect gauge of a story’s quality, but it goes a long way towards creating a favourable impression.
It don’t matter if you’re black or white… November 29, 2011Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: books, childhood, fantasy novels, isobelle carmody, memories, nostalgia, obernewtyn chronicles, reviews, the sending, the stone key
…but if you’re grey, forget about it!
Reading books in a series which you loved as a child or teenager is on occasion an unsettling experience. Some childhood favourites stand the test of time, remaining as true in adulthood as they were in youth. The works of Gillian Rubinstein, Adele Geras, Catherine Jinks and Philip Pullman remain thus for me. Those of Victor Kelleher I get even more out of than I did as an adolescent. Some of the things he says are hidden until you’ve lived long enough, I think. If any of these authors were to write another book in the series I enjoyed, I would be delighted.
But sometimes, looking at the books of your childhood with an adult eye is a confronting and disappointing experience. Something about them doesn’t stand up. Themes which previously seemed intensely relevant to your life appear less significant, or at least less well-expressed. The truth which you previously drew from such books is less true, less significant, less burning.
I’m sad to say that, upon reading The Sending, the latest in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, I realised this series was of the second type. Spoilers follow.
Carmody is, above all things, possessed of a unique ability to understand and convey the mindset, hopes, fears and dreams of a particular type of teenager. This teenager is one who is shy, artistic and bookish, hyper-empathetic and self-aware, and just realising what a cruel place the world can be. There are some adults like this, but not so many. I was one such teenager. Her books, with their message that if we all were more empathetic and compassionate, the world would be a much better place, resonated deeply with me.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think empathy and compassion are wonderful, admirable qualities, and that we should strive towards them at all times. But I can no longer look past Carmody’s converse argument, which is that lack of empathy and compassion is a sort of sickness or disease. (This is something she argues pretty much across the board in her books: in the Obernewtyn books and in Alyzon Whitestarr, characters can perceive a mental sickness in the antagonistic, non-empathetic characters, while in the Legendsong books, multiple worlds are literally dying because people in them can no longer hear the ‘song’ which is the metaphor for the harmony of creation.)
Such an explanation seems to me to remove responsibility from such characters for their actions, and it removes responsibility from the heroic, empathetic characters to help the former. But, more unforgiveably, it removes ambiguity and nuance. I find this problem most pronounced in the Obernewtyn books. The heroes are all noble-minded, compassionate and pacifist, the villains are all mindlessly violent, bigoted and acquisitive. The heroes have tragic pasts that they rise above. The villains have no backstory.
Just about the only character with any hint of moral ambiguity was Domick, a Misfit (ie one of the good guys) sent to infiltrate the Council (the baddies) and send back information. The horrors he sees cause him to sever ties with Obernewtyn and renounce non-violence. This is an entirely explicable and justifiable character arc. When you’re fighting evil, you can’t help but become a little bit morally grey.
But of course there’s no place for nuance in the world of Obernewtyn. Someone like Domick can’t exist. So he’s killed off in The Stone Key, the fifth book in the series.
I realise I’m taking Carmody to task for not writing the kind of book I want to read. She’s free to write whatever she wants, and I’m free to stop reading, but I honestly feel her arguments would be stronger if things weren’t always so morally clear-cut. Why, in a six-book series with a cast of characters that takes up five pages of the book, does only one person display an ounce of moral ambiguity? Why do all the other characters who suffer abuse, discrimination or horrors of some kind go mad, become consumed by grief or fear, but never, ever get angry or reevaluate their beliefs? And why does Carmody think that ‘he just loves to hurt those weaker than himself/is power-hungry’ is a catch-all explanation for cruelty and injustice?
I will keep reading, because I’ve been doing so for nearly 15 years, but I fear a terrible fate has befallen me. I’ve grown up too much to get any life-defining, resonant truth out of the Obernewtyn books, and am continuing to read out of a mixture of nostalgia and a desire to find out how it all ends.
NB: I should add that in spite of this problem, I do find Carmody a very fine storyteller. There was not one point at which I wanted to close the book, and I gulped the whole thing down in just over a day. I have no issues with the overall story or themes. I just think they are weakened by problematic characterisation.
‘Oh, this book. Oh, my HEART.’ May 12, 2011Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
Tags: books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories, nostalgia, pagan chronicles, philip pullman, romanitas, savage city, sophia mcdougall
This was my involuntary response after (and during) reading Savage City, the third book in Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy. I read the book with a kind of desperate, yearning hunger. I’d been waiting for it for several years, I loved its characters (in particular, its heroine, fierce, introverted, determined Una), and I couldn’t bear not knowing how things would end.
The last time I read a book like that, I was 22, and it was the final Harry Potter book. I think this is significant, because the last time before that, I would’ve been in high school, reading Darksong, the follow-up to Isobelle Carmody’s Darkfall. And, indeed, this was the way I read all my favourite books, as a child and teenager.
I devoured them, much the same way as Sara Crewe (a childhood heroine) is said to ‘devour books’ in A Little Princess. Their characters were as real, as close to me, as real people. Their lives mattered as much or more. I felt every blow that landed upon them, and I wanted their happiness with a fierceness that I couldn’t even believe I was capable of feeling. When I read those books, curled up in the wing chair in the living room, my feet resting on the coffee table, as a child and teenager in Canberra, I was oblivious to everything else, as my family will attest. I didn’t hear when people spoke to me. I didn’t notice when the natural light disappeared. My heart-rate increased. My mouth was dry. I was terrified for the characters.
I’m so much more detached these days. Oh, I still enjoy books, and I still find books that I love, but it is a different kind of love, a different kind of enjoyment. Less emotional investment and identification, more literary analysis and serenity. More thinking, less feeling.
I cannot regret these changes. They snuck up on me as quietly and imperceptibly as the day I looked at my old dolls and realised I no longer knew how to play. That girl, who cried for three days without stopping upon reading the ending of The Amber Spyglass, who rewrote Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles because she couldn’t bear not knowing what happened to Pagan, who finished the sixth Harry Potter book and then sat on the floor, literally beating her fists on the floorboards, begging her sister and mother to finish the book so she could talk to someone, anyone, about what had just happened, she is both me, and not me. I lived like that, I felt like that, it shaped me and strengthened me and taught me.
She was me, she is me, and I love her. But she is mostly gone.
And that is why I am so grateful to Romanitas, and to Sophia McDougall. She has written something that allowed me to get back, if only for a few hours, to that place, to that girl, once more. It was wonderful. It was perfect. It could never have been any other way. But it was exhausting. Loving in such a fierce, desperate, focused way, caring that much, feeling that much – I honestly don’t know how I did it.
Announcement: Victor Kelleher Week December 27, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in announcements, books.
Tags: books, fangirl, nostalgia, victor kelleher, victor kelleher week
Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while. I hope you all are enjoying your holidays!
Back at the start of the year, I had grand plans for this blog. They included a semi-regular segment on ‘under-appreciated authors’, where I was planning to plead the case for authors I love that no one else seems to have heard of. This segment never materialised, due to various things (mainly the fact that I was writing a PhD, as well as a bunch of conference papers, and editing an academic journal). However, now that I’ve got a bit of spare time, I’d like to propose something slightly less ambitious: Victor Kelleher Week.
Victor Kelleher is one of my favourite authors, and has been since I was a child. I credit his books with playing a major role in my philosophical, moral and intellectual development. Although his books are often taught in Australian secondary schools, very few people seem to share my high opinion of him, and he is not widely known outside Australia.
At this point, I’m intending to re-read Parkland, Earthsong and Fire Dancer, which form a loosely-linked trilogy (‘about humanity, responsibility and freedom’, their blurbs inform me), and post about each of the three books. Aside from The Beast of Heaven (which is a book for adults), these are my three favourite Kelleher novels, and they are probably most representative of his work. If everything goes smoothly, I might try doing this for other, ‘underappreciated’ authors.
I hope you enjoy Victor Kelleher Week!
Book learning November 19, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
Tags: a little princess, adele geras, amelie, books, buffy, childhood, fangirl, john marsden, joss whedon, memories, nostalgia, pagan chronicles, philip pullman
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The only wars my family waged were with pen and paper.
Madhur Jaffrey, Seasons of Splendour.
As someone who lives a little too vicariously through books (and the occasional film or television series), the idea that a person might fight his or her battles on the page really resonates with me. For me, books have always provided if not guidance then at least aspirations. For almost as long as I can remember reading, I have latched on to particular characters and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to emulate them. There have been a lot of articles and posts recently about female role-models in literature (prompted in part by the upcoming release of the New Moon film and the inevitable bout of hand-wringing about the message Bella Swan sends to impressionable young women) and this post is prompted, in part, by these articles. I’ll do a links round-up over at Livejournal so you can see the sorts of things that are being said, if you’re interested.
I’m quite proud of my literary role models, on the whole.
The first character I can remember pretending to be, was, fittingly, Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (I had spent many years pretending to be fairytale princesses before that, but I choose to ignore that as I feel my identification with these princesses was more due to the fact that they wore pretty dresses and jewellery.) For those of you not familiar with the character, Sara is the daughter of an English soldier who lives in India as part of the colonial administration. She grows up pampered in a London boarding school run by the cartoonishly vile Miss Minchin, until her father’s death, which leaves her penniless. Miss Minchin, who spoiled Sara because she hoped to get rewarded by the wealthy Captain Crewe, finds herself responsible for a girl she detests. Overnight, Sara’s life changes. Instead of being the favoured student at the school, she is now a drudge teaching the younger students. She has to move out of her luxurious rooms into a cold attic, eating scraps where before she had dined on delicacies.
What I loved about Sara was not so much the grace with which she endured this change in circumstances but the way she chose to endure them. You see, Sara was a reader. (‘She doesn’t just read books, Miss Minchin, she devours them,’ her father says.) More importantly, she was a storyteller. The thing that kept me covering wooden crates with red crepe paper (to make them look like Sara’s ‘battered red footstool’) and drawing fireplaces on bits of paper in order to stick them on my wall to recreate Sara’s attic bedroom was the power of Sara’s imagination. ‘Suppose,’, she would say, meaning, ‘Imagine something better than here’.
A Little Princess was an early lesson for me in the power of the imagination to overcome the most horrendous circumstances. The book articulated something I’d only just begun to understand: that books offered readers another, infinitely more wonderful world.
The next book to set my imagination on fire to such an extent was Adèle Geras’ wonderful The Girls in the Velvet Frame. What, you might ask, did a story about five Jewish sisters growing up poor in pre-Israel Jerusalem have to do with a seven-year-old middle-class Canberran in the early 90s? For me, it was two things: the warmth of the sisters’ relationship (and their relationships with their widowed mother Sarah and unmarried, ageing aunt Mimi), and the perfection of Geras’ characterisation.
I loved the matriarchal world of the Bernstein sisters, as I saw (and valued) a similar quality in my own family (which is made up of very strong women with very close relationships). And I loved, in particular, two of the sisters: dreamy Naomi, who saw the world through rose-coloured glasses and used storytelling to occupy her two younger sisters, and practical, cynical Chava (‘I always expect bad things to happen, because then bad things don’t disappoint me and the good things come as a nice surprise’). There’s a lot of Naomi and Chava in me, and there is a lot of stubborn, determined Dvora in my younger sister Mimi. I recognised this even then, and I identified passionately with Geras’ characters.
When I was ten, along came one character who would blow them all away with sheer awesomeness. I’m referring, of course, to Pagan Kidrouk, from Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles. I read these books initially as I was invited to a talk given by Jinks at the sadly now defunct Griffith Library, and I fell in love with the snarky, sarcastic, scarily intelligent hero. It’s been a life-long love affair: if Pagan were to walk out of the pages of the books today, I would follow him to the ends of the earth, even if all he did was make disparaging remarks about my intelligence and rage at the stupidity of mankind.
Part of the appeal of Pagan lay in his identity as a literate intellectual in a largely illiterate, anti-intellectual world (the books are set during the Third Crusades). He was irresolutely bookish, with a rich, if angry, intellectual life going on in his head. He has always appealed to my book snobbery, which in my preteen days was even more fierce than it is today. I read, therefore I am would’ve been my motto if I’d heard of Descartes. Pagan made even the illiterate characters recognise the value of reading: Lord Roland, the knight whom Pagan serves, remarks (giving me a quote that has always resonated with me), ‘People who read are always like you. You can’t just tell them, you have to tell them why.’ I swooned, and I’m still swooning today.
The Tomorrow series by John Marsden also provided me with a set of inspirational characters. After briefly cheating on Pagan with Lee (haha), I settled down into a more sedate appreciation of this classic Australian series. I honestly think it was one of the most important cultural artefacts of my generation. For about five years, everyone was reading these books. When a new one came out, we’d all be discussing them on the playground, speculating about who would live and who would die. They were, for my generation, bigger than Harry Potter, and for that they’ll always have a special place in my heart: although I loved being a reader because it set me apart, I also enjoyed it when my classmates and friends read so that we could discuss books.
I also adored the characters because they rang so true. Not one of them is a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out placed in the book as a mouthpiece for Marsden’s views (which happens so often in so many YA books). Oh, sure, it was very clear what Marsden’s views were, but he let them seep through organically, whispering at the margins of one of the most gripping plots I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Marsden’s teenage characters, from Ellie the tomboyish, self-reliant narrator to Fi the sheltered princess, from Robyn the pacifist Christian to Lee the depressed, revenge-obsessed artist, taught me how to be brave. They taught me that war was hell and that I had a moral obligation to do all that I could to prevent it, and they taught me that teenagers were the most powerful, most adaptable, most resilient and most resourceful creatures on the planet.
The next author to play such a significant role in my moral and intellectual development was the wonderful, eloquent, word-weaving Philip Pullman. He gave me such great gifts: the character Lyra, from his His Dark Materials series, who is probably my favourite fictional heroine, and is definitely the most heartbreakingly human character ever to stalk the pages of a book, and the book The Tiger In the Well, which gave me a speech which has informed my political beliefs to this day. These books didn’t exactly change my beliefs (I was an atheist already, I was in favour of knowledge and consciousness and life, I was a social democrat, I was appalled by unchecked capitalism) so much as confirm them and articulate them in a way that I could not have done myself. No books have ever meant more to me than His Dark Materials and nothing has ever had, or will ever have, such a profound effect on my life.
In His Dark Materials, the idea that a very small event has the potential to create millions and millions of universes is a crucial theme. Well, the fact that my sister overheard me complaining about lack of books (I was put off by the cover of Northern Lights, which had animals on it: I’ve never been particularly interested in stories about animals) and forced Northern Lights into my hands utterly changed my life. I would not be at Cambridge without Philip Pullman.
There are several other book, film and television characters who are important to me: Amelie from the movie Amelie (who gave me unrealistic expectations about life, but introduced me to the joys of quirkiness and serendipity), Sulien ap Gwien from Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga (who showed me that one could have a fulfilled life without romantic realitionships), Una from Jo Walton’s Romanitas series (whose intense introversion and observation of other people is something with which I identity strongly) and the characters in Joss Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (who taught me that the family that you choose for yourself, united, can never be defeated, and that misfits can save the world).
These characters are in some ways more important to me than the themes of the texts in which they appear. As I took on all these characters and integrated them into my identity, they ceased to be the creations of their respective authors and became something different. I hesitate to say that they taught me how to be, since of course I am not as stoic as Sara Crewe, as resilient as Naomi and Dvora Bernstein, as intelligent as Pagan Kidrouk, as brave as the teenagers in the Tomorrow series or as all-around awesome as Lyra. I don’t have the courage of my convictions of Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, I don’t brighten the lives of those around me as much as Amelie Poulain, I’m not as loyal as Sulien, I’m not as determined as Una and I’m not as good a friend as the characters in Joss Whedon’s shows. But all these characters taught me who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live. Although I do not live up to their standards, that I value these standards says something essential about my identity.
Same, same but different October 28, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in life, memories, university.
Tags: cambridge, life, memories, nostalgia
My first PhD year has begun not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a series of small volcanoes. It seems everything that could go wrong went wrong.
First up was a housing crisis. As I was not sure until mid-August that I had the funding to continue with my PhD, I had given up my old lease, thinking to save money. This, of course, required me to flit between London and Cambridge, from friends’ couch to spare bedroom to floor, in a rather chaotic, peripatetic manner. This caused all kinds of problems, ranging from living out of a suitcase, wearing the same four outfits over and over again, to getting on the bad side of college and being woken in the middle of the night by angry porters.
Almost as soon as I had my own roof over my head, I had a computer crisis. My college, until last year, did not require Mac users to run a virus scan in order to use the college network. This year, all that changed, and I was forced to suffer the indignity of installing McAfee antivirus software on my poor computer. Bernard, my computer, liked it no better than I did. The internet slowed to a dial-up speed crawl, and constantly froze. After several hysterical conversations with both my college tutor and my supervisor (who was so outraged she considered forcing college to pay for a new computer), I got one of the local tech-heads to fix Bernard for me. Everything’s working fine now, but if you know anything about me, you’ll know that depriving me of internet for two weeks will not be a pretty sight.
Once that was sorted out, I got a cold of epic proportions. My old doctor used to prescribe me with seretide, taken through an asthma puffer. If I used it twice a day in the few days when my throat started to feel scratchy, the worst symptoms of the cold would normally pass me by. She did this because until the age of 23, I got colds so badly that they’d last for months, causing me to get a hacking cough that would continue ceaselessly, giving me sleepless nights and aching muscles. So when I got the Cold From Hell, I went to my Cambridge doctor, hoping to get a new prescription. No such luck. ‘That’s a steroid’, he said, when I showed him my seretide puffer. ‘You’ll become dependent on it if you use it too much.’ As my friend said to me when I complained about this, ‘You’re kind of dependent on breathing, too.’ Well, no breathing for Ronni, apparently.
I’m finally better from the cold, and all healthy and ready to face whatever disaster Cambridge next throws at me.
I’m enjoying my first PhD year so far. After struggling to write for ages, I did what I always do when I’m getting writers’ (and researchers’) block: schedule a meeting with my supervisor, which tends to scare me into getting back to work. It worked: I’ve now written nearly 2000 words in two days! Only 78,000 to go!
I’m sitting in on a lot of undergrad classes. My favourite is probably Medieval Irish, where we whip through texts at a much greater speed than we did last year. We’re currently translating Audacht Morainn (‘The Testament of Morann’), which is part legal text, part wisdom literature. It’s all about how to be a good ruler. I’m also taking second-year Latin, where we’re translating St Patrick’s rather idiosyncratic Confessio, and Welsh, where we’re translating the seriously baffling Canu Urien (‘Songs of Urien’). Finally, I’m taking beginners’ Modern Irish, which I love.
As far as life goes, I’m happy, but it’s a happiness tinged with nostalgic melancholy. Last year was just so perfect that it was always going to be impossible to top. I think part of the reason I loved 2008-2009 was because I’d been so miserable for so long before that. It was not going to be hard to have a better year than 2007! And so my friends in my department were kindred spirits, both in their love of all things obscurely medieval and in their love of the pub. My housemates were perfect (aside from the inability of some of them to do the washing up), and they became not merely the people I lived with, but good friends. I have to try hard not to make unfair comparisons, but it’s difficult. I’m in the same house, but with entirely different people, and the dynamic of the house has changed. None of my close MPhil friends continued on for the PhD, and to make matters worse, many of my good undergrad and postgrad friends also graduated.
Last academic year was so good in so many ways. It gave me the confidence I’d always been lacking. It gave me the sense of place for which I’d always been searching. It gave me the sense of purpose for which I’d always yearned. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but I never imagined it would be this hard. Up until last year, I always looked back with nostalgia at previous stages in my life, wishing I could do them again. I did not do so last academic year, and imagined myself to have broken the cycle. Apparently I have not.
I don’t go to parties, baby August 29, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, music.
Tags: australia in the 90s, fangirl, memories, music, nostalgia, regurgitator
Any street cred this blog ever had is going to go out the window, because I am about to write about Regurgitator. That’s right, you read that correctly. Regurgitator. My non-Australian readers are probably scratching their heads right now, befuddled. If you don’t want to read about a rather popular 1990s Australian electronic rock band who sang about apathy, agoraphobia and video games, I give you leave to tune out. My Australian readers are probably scratching their heads in befuddlement for a different reason. Why would I want to write about Regurgitator?
Quite simply because I think they were one of the best bands in Australia in the 90s. Their music, in particular in the albums Unit and …Art was a sign of the times as much as the adolescent shrieks of Silverchair and the melodic, barely suppressed anger of the Whitlams. These three young nerds from Brisbane (and why is it that so much of the best Australian bands came out of Brisbane? I can’t for the life of me think of anything else to recommend the place) captured something essential about the experience of teenagers and twentysomethings in the Howard years.
Our esteemed former prime minister claimed when he came to power in 1996 that he wanted Australians to feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’, not angsty about our past and frightened about our future. The burning debates of his predecessor, Paul Keating, about reconciliation with the Stolen Generation of indigenous Australians, about Australia’s relationship with Asia, about the environment, about the importance of the arts and intellectual life in Australian culture, were swept under the rug, out of sight but certainly not out of mind. And people were not happy.
One of the big differences between my generation and previous generations (aside from Gen X, whose attitudes and tastes did much to shape the tastes of us Gen Y types, much as both generations would prefer to deny it) is that we reacted to unhappiness and dissatisfaction not with protest and action, but with despair, withdrawal and ennui. Not for nothing are we known as the ‘whatever’ generation. We certainly weren’t relaxed and comfortable – in many cases we were simmering with rage, but we preferred a quieter, less public, form of revolution. We retreated inside. And for the first time, we had the technology to help us.
Regurgitator tapped into all of this. They were, now that I think about it, one of the first bands to recognising the potential for the internet and video games to exacerbate depression and disconnect. Take the lyrics for the song ‘Virtual Life’, the final song on …Art. It’s about a television, but it might as well be about the internet:
I’ve got everything
That I could ever need
It’s under lock and key
Just survive all alone me and my screens
(I hasten to add that this is only one way the internet might affect you. For me, the internet has been nothing but a joy, a source of many fantastic new circles of friends and a place that has taught me so much.)
What about ‘Everyday Formula’ and ‘Black Bugs’, which riff on the same theme, but in relation to video games? Again we find this same emphasis on raising the drawbridge, dropping the portcullis and closing the curtains as a reaction to profound fear of, and disgust at, society:
I got killed by black bugs on my video game
And although to myself it doesn’t mean too much
I keep dying and dying over and over again
But I feel I’m alive so I’ll just pretend
People think that because Regurgitator’s music is full of cheesy electronic notes that wouldn’t be out of place in an old school video game, because they recorded an album in a plastic bubble in the middle of Federation Square and because they pepper their albums with silly, scatological songs, that they are incapable of being serious. But they’re deadly serious when they’re talking about the plastic, fakeness of celebrity and society, as in ‘Polyester Girl’, ‘Happiness’ and ‘Freshmint!. Right when they’re at their most humorous, they’re at their most cutting:
I love pointless effluent
It seems to love me
It’s sticking to my heart like polythene glue
Making everything seem so sweet
Big wide world of bitterness baby
Poisoning up this tongue
Giving this life its sweet respite
Let’s rip that packet of fun
Rotting my brain once again
It’s always the same and never ends (x2)
Love me lovely cathode-ray
Mother me in your glow
I’ll do anything you say
If you tell me I’ll never be alone
Touch me shiny magazine
Touch me way down there
I can’t help but imagining
That you really care
Regurgitator’s appeal always lay in the fact that we knew they were a trio of basement-dwelling nerds. But they were basement-dwelling nerds with something to say, deeply worried about what was going on in society, able to sum up the fears, passivity and neuroses of a generation which had collectively decided that what was going on in the world outside was intolerable, unendurable, and impossible to change. They never spoke about our dreams, because how could such a generation possibly dream? They were deeply, deeply daggy, and revelled in their dagginess. How could one forget ‘The Song Formerly Known As’, a riot of rejection, door-closing and denial?
As the song progresses, the singer rejects parties (‘I don’t go to parties baby/ ‘Cos people tend to freak me out’), discos (‘Won’t see me down the disco mama/ Bright lights really hurt my eyes’), concerts (‘I don’t go to concerts baby/ The music’s always up too loud’) and raving (‘Won’t see me tribal raving/ Cos I won’t ever look that good/ Rather dance in ugly pants/ in the comfort of a loungeroom in surburbia’). It’s the petulant whine, ‘no, no, no, I don’t do that, I don’t do anything, everything is too scary, it’s too much, it’s unendurable’ dressed up as a rousing nerd anthem.
Or is it? ‘The Song Formerly Known As’ is also a nerdy chat up line. (‘Things don’t get no better/ better than you and me’, after all.) It’s a rejection of all the meaningless externalities that get in the way of real relationships. Let’s raise the drawbridge, drop the portcullis and shut the curtains against all those vacuous discos, concerts and parties and stay at home, rejecting the world together. Everything out there is meaningless. Whatever. I don’t go to parties, baby.
I leave you with the video clip for ‘The Song Formerly Known As’. Enjoy!
Master of Philosophy? July 21, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in life, memories, uni.
Tags: cambridge, family, life, memories, nostalgia, travel
I can’t believe it’s been a month since I updated this blog! I feel incredibly guilty about that, since so much has been happening. My mother’s just left for Heathrow after staying here for six weeks, during which time we went to Spain, walked 22 miles to Ely, and ate way too much Indian food, but before I talk about all that, I’d like to fill you in on the biggest news: I graduated!
Like all things related to Cambridge, the graduation ceremony was poorly organised and highly ritualised. We were told that it would begin at 11 o’clock. We were to present ourselves for inspection (we had to be correctly dressed) at college at 10 o’clock, and our guests had to be at Senate House by 10.50. When we got to college, we were informed that the ceremony would actually start at midday. I had no way to contact my mother, as she had my phone, which was switched off. So I sat in the SBR with one of my housemates, watching appalling reality TV on the computer, agonising about my poor guests.
After an hour, we started our procession through town. This is a tradition for the graduation ceremony, and I’m certainly glad I am a member of a college that’s close to Senate House. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to process from somewhere like Girton, running the inevitable gauntlet of gawking, camera-happy tourists.
The ceremony itself was very quick: no long-winded, patronising speeches like at Sydney. You (I swear I’m not making this up) hold the college Praelector’s fingers, he says some Latin over you, you kneel down in front of the Vice-Chancellor (in our case it was the Vice-Chancellor’s representative), she says some more Latin over you (‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ – non-Christian monotheists can opt out with ‘in the name of God’, but there’s no opt-out phrasing for atheists or polytheists, unfortunately), you walk away and someone hands you your degree. You then hang around outside Senate House until the session is over and then everyone swarms out to congratulate you.
It felt a bit more anticlimactic than when I graduated from Sydney, simply because I graduated with college people rather than my friends from my course (although two of them were at my session). Somehow it’s more meaningful and more poignant and more significant to graduate surrounded by those who went through everything with you.
Prior to graduating, I’ve been having a grand time. Mum got here just before I handed in my dissertation, and it was a great relief to have her there during the final stages. Hand-in was followed by May Week, Cambridge’s traditional week of debauched excess. My May Week kicked off with the John’s May Ball, which was absolutely insane. Imagine the most over-the-top funfair+formal+barbecue+bar+al fresco dining+dance party+rave+jazz club+indie music street festival and you still haven’t quite encompassed all that the May Ball was. I had a fabulous time, but the not-quite-closet socialist in me felt a bit outraged at the excess of it all. I probably wouldn’t go again unless I was taking someone from home to show them ‘the Cambridge lifestyle’.
I followed the May Ball with several more sedate May Week activities: a couple of garden parties, which were all about the Pimm’s and the finger food. At these I caught up with the ASNaCs, which made me a little melancholy. So many of my ASNaC friends are third-year undergrads, and won’t be coming back next year.
After May Week I disappeared to London for a bit with Mum, where we stayed with friends. She did a few interviews for work and I caught up with one of my oldest friends from Canberra and her boyfriend. She was in the UK for a conference and they’d decided to make a bit of a holiday of it. I hadn’t seen her for nine months, so it was amazing to catch up.
Then it was time to return to the ‘Bridge for my viva, a nerve-wracking experience akin to being dragged across a bed of nails while having your hair pulled out strand by strand. Nothing about it was pleasant, and the examiners’ comments were interesting, to say the least, but I must have done acceptably, because my marks were good enough for me to continue for a PhD. Funding, however, remains elusive. Fingers crossed.
After the viva, Mum and I went off to Spain for eight days. We went to Madrid (where we visited three great art galleries: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Reina Sofia and the Prado, as well as unexpectedly finding a fantastic Annie Leibovitz exhibition). We spent a lot of time walking around the Retiro park, where Mum got some hilarious footage of people rowing around a tiny pond, and even paying money to be taken around said pond on a little steamboat. If I can, I’ll upload it here.
After Madrid, we spent four days in Barcelona, where we mostly hung around in the gothic district of the city, apart from one day when we walked to Parc Güell, the crowning glory of Gaudí’s architecture in Barcelona. (I was hoping to see people with glowing eyes running around, à la Röyksopp’s ’49 Percent’ but alas, it was not to be.)
I’d never been to Spain before, and was most impressed at what good food you could get for basically nothing. Most places had a breakfast special (coffee, pastry or sandwich and orange juice) for about 3-4 euro, and a lunch special (three courses, drinks and bread) for 8-16 euro.
After Spain, we came back to the ‘Bridge for a few more days, then went to London, where I caught up with yet another visiting-for-a-conference old school friend (we’ve known one another since we were 11) and went on an excellent walk around Hampstead Heath. It’s amazing that such a beautiful place exists within such a huge, noisy city.
Then it was back to Cambridge for graduation and various admin-related tasks. I’m about to head off to Ireland for a Modern Irish language course, and I’ve been trying to organise that. But the whole thing was tinged with sadness. Over the past six weeks, I’ve unlearned all the independence that I gained over the nine months I’ve been away. Having my mother here was wonderful beyond words. For all I love my new friends, there’s nothing like having someone around to whom you don’t even have to explain yourself, who gets you on a level beyond language. I coped before, and I will cope again, but the initial stretching of the umbilical cord is going to be painful.
When I was a child, the world seemed so wide March 22, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
Tags: addiction, american gods, books, buffy, catherine jinks, childhood, fangirl, fantasy novels, john marsden, joss whedon, memories, neil gaiman, nostalgia, pagan chronicles, philip pullman, sara douglass, victor kelleher, watchmen
For someone whose favourite series of books is about the absolute necessity of embracing conscious, adult existence, I sure spend a lot of time reminiscing about my childhood. On days when adult life seems to ‘suck beyond the telling of it’ (Gratuitous Buffy Quote #1), childhood experiences seem that much more wonderful, their joys that much fiercer, their emotions that much stronger, the whole 17 (to pluck an arbitrary number out of nowhere) years that much more meaningful than anything the previous seven have had to offer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my attitude to my favourite texts (TV series and movies, but for the most part books) of my younger years.
It became apparent, in a couple of conversations with Sibylle, that I mythologised my personal canon of childhood to an absurd degree. Sibylle has set herself a rather awesome reading challenge this year: to read the best young-adult, science-fiction and fantasy novels out there. Since these are my three main genres, I was happy to oblige with suggestions. What we both noticed was that I was constantly saying things like ‘such and such a book was my favourite book when I was seven’ or, ‘so and so wrote the books that meant the most to me when I was a teenager’. Although I have discovered texts that I adore since hitting the wrong side of 18, they are much rarer. (Hello, current crazy Watchmen obsession! Why don’t you stand up and take a bow, Great, Epic Fangirling of Scott Westerfeld and Cory Doctorow of 2007-8? And let’s not forget the time that American Gods reduced me to a quivering heap of awed silence.)
But a recent post of Sibylle’s forced me to reexamine my rather blinkered, uncritical view of my childhood canon.
I’ve also watched Grease (1978) for the upteenth time. It was my favourite movie when I was 13, which means nothing as to its quality. I’m very suspicious of my teenage and childhood loves as I don’t think half of them were based on merit. You won’t find me writing about how wonderful something is based solely on my childhood memories of it.
Ouch. Even though she assures me this comment wasn’t aimed at me, it did make me think that I needed to assess exactly why I champion my beloved texts of childhood so fiercely.
One of the things I’ve noticed about adulthood is that you have much less time to be a narcissist. (Somewhere, my mother is rolling on the floor laughing at this admission of her most narcissistic of daughters.) I know this sounds odd coming from someone whose idea of a good time is to sit in her room, reviewing books on the internet while talking to people on IRC, but the pull of the ‘real world’ is slightly more insistent once you’re an adult. If nothing else, there’s a need to earn money to support an expensive lifestyle of Buffy boxed sets, fantasy novels and, once in a while, food. Childhood and adolescence, in contrast, offer many opportunities for sitting in one’s room, thinking about how such and such a novel (or film, or song) PERFECTLY ENCAPSULATES ONE’S LIFE. (That is, if one’s childhood is as wonderfully middle-class Canberran as mine was.) But it is not merely opportunity that causes this vastly expanded childhood canon.
I’ve realised that I like texts in three different ways. These can be roughly summarised thus:
- Head: These texts appeal to me solely on an aesthetic level. I appreciate the technical proficiency of their creators, and in some cases, their complex themes, but I feel no desire to reread or rewatch them. I can’t list any examples because, once I’ve read or watched such texts, they exert no further pull on my imagination.
- Head and Heart: These texts are aesthetically pleasing and speak to me on some personal level. They have some kind of meaning that either fits in with my worldview or has some relevance to my life, and tend to encourage me to want to write about them and discuss them with others. The majority of the books of my childhood would fall under this category, as would most of my current personal canon (Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series, China Miéville’s books, Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, Dollhouse, most of the immrama that I’m writing about for my dissertation).
- Head, Heart and Soul: These texts are technically proficient. They possess themes which speak to me on a personal level and make me want to write about them and discuss them with other fans. But, most importantly, they make me reexamine who I am, make me want to change, to become better, to think more. These are the texts that I would quite possibly die to save. Thinking about these texts makes my life worth living.
This last category contains such things as His Dark Materials, Buffy, Firefly, Sara Douglass’s Troy Game series, Parkland, Earthsong, Firedancer, The Beast of Heaven and Taronga by Victor Kelleher, The Tiger In The Well by Philip Pullman, The Vampire Chronicles, Catherine Jinks’s Pagan series, Adele Geras’s Tower Room series and book The Girls in the Velvet Frame, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, the films Amelie and Waltz With Bashir, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga, Cirque du Soleil’s show Quidam, Buile Shuibne, and the graphic novel Watchmen.
Of that list, only American Gods, Small Gods, The Vampire Chronicles, Buile Shuibne, The Troy Game, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, Waltz With Bashir, Firefly and Watchmen were read/watched by me when I was an adult. And of that small list, the only ones read/watched by me after I finished my undergrad degree were Waltz With Bashir, Watchmen, American Gods and Small Gods. That’s a very small proportion of a rather large personal canon.
I do read slightly less than I did as a child (when I would routinely read three books a day), but that can’t be the only reason. Of the three books a day I read as a child, after all, not all became Head, Heart and Soul books. Why, then, are so few of the texts that have meaning for me texts I’ve discovered as an adult?
It’s not a reflection of quality. Objectively, I know, for example, that the Pagan series is of a much higher quality than the Vampire Chronicles, and that Victor Kelleher is a much better writer than Sara Douglass. I might (after doing Honours in English literature, working for five years as a book reviewer and two years as a feature sub-editor) know a bit more about what makes for bad writing than I did as a child, but none of the ‘childhood canon’ books on my list are badly written. I’ve read them all many times as an adult, and they remain as wonderful now as they seemed to me as a child.
Perhaps it has something to do with the relative complexity (and stability) of one’s adult identity in comparison to the fluidity of the identity of a child. A child is, to a certain extent, unformed, and capable of possessing many facets, not all of which must be satisfied in a work of fiction. Thus, the part of my child-self that consoled itself through ‘supposing’ was satisfied with A Little Princess, while the part of it that thought all humans were beasts found expression in the works of Victor Kelleher. I did not require a text to be all things to all parts of my personality, and so was satisfied with texts that embodied just some parts of that personality. As an adult, I require more of my texts, and so, for the most part, am disappointed in this regard. A text must, as I wrote elsewhere in this blog, speak to me and for me and and about me, but it must do so to and for and about all parts of my identity.
That is asking a lot of a text. In fact, in the face of my high-maintenance requirements of texts, it’s a wonder any have managed to find their way into my personal canon at all since I turned 18. So thank you, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Ari Folman, Alan Moore, Sara Douglass, Jo Walton, Anne Rice, crazed anonymous medieval author of Buile Shuibne, and Joss Whedon for somehow finding a way into the seething mass of contradictions which make up my mind, heart and soul. Sometimes, your writings are the only things that make me feel anything for this confusing, terrifying, beautiful and heartbreaking thing called adulthood. For this, I am eternally grateful.