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Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
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I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

‘Oh, this book. Oh, my HEART.’ May 12, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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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.

Book learning November 19, 2009

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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.

‘If I heed your words, that is all I that I shall ever have’ August 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, life, memories, quotes.
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I’ve been wanting to do a post of quotes for a while, and now seems the right time to do it. I’ve been keeping a little notebook of quotes for about 10 years now, adding to it whenever I read or hear a particularly well-phrased set of words, and I’m almost at the end of the book, so today seems a particularly appropriate era-ending date for committing the words to cyberspace. I’ll try to keep things vaguely chronological.

‘People who read are always a little bit like you. You can’t just tell them. You have to tell them why.’ – Catherine Jinks, Pagan’s Crusade.

‘Tell them stories.’ – Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass.

‘Many different lamentations came to pierce me like arrows
Whose shafts were barbed with pity.’ – Dante Alighieri, Inferno, XXIX, 43-44.

‘She held the spindle as she sat
Erinna with the thick-coiled mat
Of raven hair and deepest agate eyes
Gazing with a sad surprise
At surging visions of her destiny
To spin the byssus drearily
In insect-labour, while the throng
Of goods and men wrought deeds that poets wrought in song.’ – George Eliot, chapter-heading poem to Daniel Deronda, chapter 51.

‘A man who cannot draw strength from himself but only from litanies and anthems, is far more dangerous than one who after reading a handbook thinks he can drive a car or plane.’ – Lajos Zihaly, The Angry Angel.

The entirety of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories ‘The Witness’ and ‘Everything and Nothing’.

‘If I heed your words that is all
that I shall ever have.
If I have no sword
where then shall I seek peace?

A sword might win a Peace’s time from tumult;
no peace have the hungry,
and so the Peace is made from the work of gathered days
the many’s many choices.’ – Graydon Saunders and Jo Walton, ‘Theodwyn’s Rede’.

‘I have been a prize in a game
I have been a queen on a hill
From far and far they flocked to see me.

White I am, amongst the shadows,
My shoulder is noted for its fairness
The two best men in all the world have loved me.

My crown is of apple, bough and blossom.
They wear my favour but my arms are empty.
The boat drifts heedless down the dark stream.’ – Jo Walton, ‘The Three Great Queens of the Island of Tir Tanagiri’.

‘ “There is only one good reason for fighting – and that is, if the other man started it. You see, wars are a wickedness of a wicked people. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop him.”

“But both sides always say that the other side started them.”

“Of course they do, and it is a good thing that it should be so. At least, it shows that both sides are conscious, inside themselves, that the wicked thing about a war is its beginning.” ‘ – T. H. White, The Witch In The Wood.

‘Begone from me, oh mortals who are pure of heart. Be gone from my thoughts, oh souls who dream great dreams. Be gone from me, all hymns of glory. I am the magnet for the damned. At least for a little while. And then my heart cries out, my heart will not be still, my heart will not give up, my heart will not give in – the blood that teaches life does not teach lies, and love becomes again my reprimand, my goad, my song.’ – Anne Rice, Blood Canticle.

‘Let the young sing songs of death. They are stupid. The finest thing under the sun and the moon is the human soul. I marvel at the small miracles of kindness that pass between humans, I marvel at the growth of conscience, at the persistence of reason in the face of all superstition and despair. I marvel at human endurance.’ – Anne Rice, Pandora.

‘No one can get in
Our world.
It has a wall twenty feet high
and adults
have only ten foot ladders.’ – Ross Falconer.

‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth (V, v, 17-28).

‘These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep.’ – William Shakespeare, The Tempest, (IV: i).

‘ “I think,” Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, “that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might’ve been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.” ‘ – Ursula Le Guin, The Other Wind.

‘Novii, novissimi – newer, newest. “The new” … “The newer newest. The newly come, no Novian but one. The newer branch of the Novian stem. No Novian but another comes to ruin you. Save yourself from that, if you think you can.” ‘ – Sophia McDougall, Rome Burning.

‘ “Are you Asterion?” “You flatter me, child, if you think me that malevolent”’ – Sara Douglass, Hades’ Daughter.

‘I have made Asterion “like”. I am a witch indeed.’ – Sara Douglass, Darkwitch Rising.

‘He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognised the names by which it called itself.’ – Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

‘Other countries have stories of kings who will return at times of great need. Only in England is it written in the constitution.’ – Ibid.

‘There are few things on earth that couldn’t be improved by adding vampires to them.’ – Scott Westerfeld.

‘The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise.’ – G. K. Chesterton, ‘Lepanto’.

‘Nine things about oracles
Let me try to be clear.
The first thing is that nobody wants to know,
and yet you can’t stop asking.
The second is you all want reassurance:
be better off with a fortune cookie.
The third is that I don’t owe you anything,
you’re not what it’s about.
I see the tiles, sideways, sometimes,
tessera, tesserae, the way the pattern
plays out in fifths, the beat falling
unchangedly, a glimpse, a resposte in sixte,
and what will be set, sept, set down in stone,
the colours always ambiguous
even in the moment the threads part,
the owls crying in the october meadow
gods and time and weight, wait,
that one instant of vision, the curtain falling, parting,
there is a whole ocean
crashing toward
that ninth wave.’ – Jo Walton, ‘Nine Things About Oracles’.

‘Rushing down every path; that is the great madness.’ – Buile Shuibne, translated by J. G. O’Keefe.

‘Without foray with a king,
I am alone in my home,
without glorious reavings,
without friends, without music…
Without a house right full,
without the converse of generous men,
without the title of a king,
without drink, without food.
Alas that I have been parted here
from my mighty, armed host…
Though I be as I am tonight,
there was a time
when my strength was not feeble
over a land that was not bad…
in my auspicious kingship
I was a good, great king.’ – Ibid.

‘My transgression has come against me
whatsoever way I flee;
’tis manifest to me from the pity shown me
that I am a sheep without a fold.’ – Ibid.

‘Sad this expedition;
would that I had not come!
Far from my home
is the country I have reached.’ – Ibid.

There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel Claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged claws: alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy, the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart
Thine eyes grow full of tender care,
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.’ – W. B. Yeats, ‘The Two Trees’.

‘In America, it almost seems like family has become a code word for something that you can put a five-year-old in front of, go out for two hours, and come back secure in the knowledge that your child will not have been exposed to any ideas.’ – Neil Gaiman.

These are all literary (as opposed to quotes from cinema, TV or music) but I think that’s enough to be going on with for now.

When I was a child, the world seemed so wide March 22, 2009

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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.

The limits of fandom; or, I just wanted a poncy-sounding title for this post August 23, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, sraffies.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
9 comments

This post is inspired by a few things, although it’s about stuff I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.

My last post, about fangirlishness, and the books, TV series and music that makes my life worth living, was about the more personal, individual side of fandom. But as any internet-addict knows, half the fun of fandom is finding a community of like-minded social misfits with whom you can obsess, pontificate, squee, rant and argue about your chosen literary, televisual and cinematic loves. Online it’s easy. You gravitate towards sites, communities and groups that like similar stuff, whether it be Harry Potter, Star Wars, Jane Austen, Veronica Mars or ’90s memorabilia.

Often, your online friends and communities act like vast, libraries of recommendations. Clearly, if people have the good taste to like Joss Whedon’s TV series, they’re bound to know what they’re talking about when they recommend books. And if they like Anne Rice, they’re likely to have read other vampire novels and be able to compare and contrast pretty well. Essentially, we’re all geeks here, and although we won’t see eye to eye on every book, movie, TV show or band, we’ll see eye to eye enough that we can trust each others’ recommendations to be mostly decent and to each others’ taste.

But what about in real life? What about when you try to convince the people at your work that their life will not be complete without having read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods? What happens when you’d give anything to watch Buffy with your beloved younger sister, but she’s more of a Sex And The City girl? What about the embarrassment and indignation you feel when your Milton lecturer has never heard of His Dark Materials?

There’s a long thread on Obernet about attempts to introduce friends to the books, films, TV series, music etc that we passionately love, and the mixed results that have ensued.

I’ve become much more wary (or perhaps selective) of recommending stuff to my friends because I’ve been burnt so many times. My best friend and I used to swap books all the time in high school. She was a fan of sweeping historical sagas, a la Leon Uris and Sebastian Faulks. I was the same nerdy fantasy girl that I am today. HDM was (as it is still) my favourite series of books. I lent her the trilogy. She liked it, but it wasn’t life-changing for her. She just got on with life.

One of my housemates last year (whom I’ve known since Year 7) and I share very similar taste in the trashier end of fantasy novels. It was excellent because I was getting a pretty good supply of unwanted review books from work, which we’d pass around. We both discovered the Tide Lords books at the same time. She introduced me to Sharon Shinn’s Samaria books. Good times.

Raphael and I have probably had the most success at recommending stuff to each other which has since become great favourites. I take credit for turning him into a card-carrying Whedonista, while he introduced me to the joy that is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I’m grateful that he told me to start with Guards! Guards!, since Samuel Vimes is certainly the finest guide you could have to Pratchett’s wonderful universe.

Mimi is the one I’ve most struggled with. I know for a fact that she would adore Stephen Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. It’s a detective series, set in Rome at the end of the Republic and beginnings of the Empire, and it presents the era as one of debauchery, political machinations and soap operatic melodrama. She’s an ancient history nut, and she loves detective stories, but she absolutely refuses to read them.

I’ll never forget the day she decided that she liked Massive Attack after all. I’d been raving about Massive for years, since Year 11, I think. She always professed disdain. Then, one day, I got more obsessive about their song lyrics than I usually do, and raved for about an hour about their brilliance. Her ears pricked up. ‘You say that Teardrop’s opening lines are ‘Love, love, is a verb/Love is a doing word’?’ she asked. ‘That’s insanely cool.’ The next thing I know, she’s imported all of Mezzanine onto her iPod and telling me how ‘you really have to be an adult to appreciate Massive Attack, I think.’

But why is it that we try so hard to get our friends to like the things we like? And why does it hurt so badly when they don’t?

I thought about it, and the answer, at least for me, is that I’m the sum of my fandoms. I’m not a 23-year-old book-reviewer/patisserie worker/childcare worker/about-to-be-Cambridge-postgrad-student. No, I’m a Whedonista. I’m a sraffie. I’m a vampire fangirl. I love house music, trip-hop, ’90s Europop, Calexico. I have a love of Robin Hood: Men In Tights that borders on the pathological. I think the most wonderful character ever created is a foul-mouthed, sarcastic, arrogant yet self-doubting illegitimate 12th-century Christian Arab Templar squire/novice monk/Archdeacon of Carcassone. I gravitate towards dark fantasy and stories of unlikely lovers saving the world. These things are my identity, more than who my friends are, more than the way I present myself to the world, and more, definitely, than my job/s. So when I’m recommending this stuff to people I love, it is like offering a piece of me to them. So when they dislike things, it’s like they’re rejecting something essential to me. They’re part of the Ronni package, and, irrational though it is (why should the people I like love the things I love?), it feels like they’re saying, ‘this part of you, this part of Ronni, I dislike/think ridiculous/despise.’ Which kind of hurts, when you think about it.

My friends are not my friends because they share all of my literary tastes. My friends are my friends because we have shared experiences both wonderful and horrendous. Because they are part of my history. But that is exactly why I love my favourite books, films, TV series and music. Because they’ve been with me when I’ve been my best, and when I’ve been my worst. They are part of my history. They’ve made me who I am as surely as my friends and family have. Can you blame me for wanting to share their awesomeness?