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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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12 comments

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.

Dystopiana*, Australiana** January 25, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, life, memories, reviews.
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6 comments

I’ve always found it a combination of surprising and amusing when people talk about the recent dystopian YA boom as if it’s a new thing, as if Suzanne Collins plucked The Hunger Games out of the (dystopia-free) ether and opened the floodgates to a host of imitators. (Well, that’s sort of what happened, but that’s beside the point.) Growing up in Australia in the 90s, basically everything I read was dystopian, before I even knew what the word ‘dystopian’ meant.

The first author I got into in a major way (and who, indeed, has the dubious honour of writing the first novel-length book I ever read) was Jackie French, whose hippie-like existence in a small town near Braidwood informed her futuristic science-fiction novels for children. While she’s better known for other works, at age seven, my favourite books of hers were a five-part series, beginning with Music From the Sea, set in an Australia so parched by the sun that humans have become nocturnal and are living a lifestyle reminiscent of early farming/gathering societies. That somewhat gentle introduction to the ‘harsh Australian weather’ subgenre of dystopian literature led me to darker fare that mixed its narratives of personal and communal heroism with pointedly political calls to arms.

John Marsden’s Tomorrow series is the environmental-political Australian dystopian series par excellence. Beginning with a bang with Tomorrow, When the War Began (a title which implies that its story could happen on any particular tomorrow), this seven-book series follows the adventures of a group of rural Australian teenagers who return from a camping holiday in the bush to find that the country has been invaded, their hometown was the focal point of the invasion, and everyone they love has been rounded up and imprisoned in the local showground. The teenagers retreat to the bush and become a guerrilla resistance force, all the while agonising over whether their actions are just. Written against the backdrop of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, this series brought home the realities of war to an entire generation of Australian teenagers more used to thinking of conflict as something that happened ‘over there’.

I actually don’t think that the Tomorrow series is the best of 90s Australian dystopian YA fiction, although it has great emotional resonance and Marsden’s evocation of the Australian landscape, and the unease most Australians feel within it, is spot on. But the later novels lack the believability that made the first few so powerful, and an ill-advised spin-off trilogy means the series ends, if not with a whimper, not really with a bang either.

No, in my opinion, there is a three-way tie for the best stories of this genre between the works of Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and one particular novel of Ruth Park’s.

Most Australians of my generation will be familiar with at least one book by Kelleher, Taronga, as it was widely studied in high school during our teenage years, but I’ve always felt Kelleher was tragically unrecognised. His trilogy beginning with Parkland, which I reviewed here a while back, is both a Cassandra-like warning and a hopeful shout of encouragement. In each book, in different ways, he wipes the slate clean, so to speak, recreating subtly different Gardens of Eden to see if, once tempted with consciousness, human nature could ever lead us anywhere other than destruction.

Gillian Rubinstein is also concerned with human nature in two very good series of hers, the Galax-Arena series and the Space Demons trilogy. I have blogged about Galax-Arena in relation to The Hunger Games already, so suffice it to say that the series is, at its heart, about the exploitation of (often poor, always defenseless) children at the hands of (often wealthy, always privileged) adults, and can be read as a metaphor for the way First World countries can only ‘live’ as well as they do by (figuratively) killing the Third World.

The Space Demons trilogy is a little different, because it uses its broader dystopian concerns as a backdrop on which to set four or five parallel coming-of-age narratives. Four (and later more) young people find themselves sucked into the virtual world of their computer games (and, in Shinkei, the third book, of cyberspace), within which they must resolve their numerous personal issues, and, as becomes increasingly apparent, the problems that beset the world. The final book reads like an idealistic call to arms, a plea to remember dreams in the face of privilege, cynicism, exploitation and fanaticism, and is one of the best intertwinings of the personal with the political that I have ever encountered.

Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif makes it onto this list simply because its dystopian nature isn’t immediately apparent, and the way it sneaks up on you is absolutely terrifying. You think you’re reading a fantasy book about family tensions, parental expectation and an island paradise populated by real-life mermaids, and then Park will give a throwaway reference to the characters having never seen a butterfly or a certain breed of animal because they’re extinct. It’s chilling.

Why, then, were Australian YA authors rushing down the dystopian road a good two decades before their (mainly American) counterparts? I have several theories, but what I’ve always felt was the mostly likely cause is the intersection of Australia’s bizarre geography and bizarre history and social mythology (mythology in the sense of stories people tell about themselves).

Australians cannot quite make up their minds about these things. On the one hand, there’s this weird sort of pride in the harshness of our landscape, and on the other, there’s the fact that very few Australians actually live in it. Australians, for the most part, cling desperately to the coastal cities, and yet there’s this constant awareness that just around the corner, there’s this vast, parched desert or dry bushland just waiting to be set on fire and burn your house to the ground. As an Australian, the recent climate change debate has always struck me as very odd because, well, if we were talking about global warming in my first grade class in 1991 and the salinity problems of the Murray-Darling basin in my fifth grade class in 1995, and the hole in the ozone layer since forever, it’s not as if suddenly clued-in politicians have only just become aware of it.

Couple this anxiety about the physical features of the land with a general sense of anxiety about the location of the land itself and about one’s place in it (and by this I mean that a dominant strand of the Australian mythos has always been an uncertainty about where and what Australia actually is***) and you get this narrative of discomfort and unease. Australian literature, by and large, does not feature people ‘lighting out for the territories’ in search of freedom and prosperity. Instead, one heads off into a hostile wilderness where general weirdness goes on.****

All this combined to make Australia a fruitful breeding ground for dystopian literature. When these novelists wanted to play around with their fears for the future, their belief in multiculturalism or political anxieties, the Australian experience provided a physical and mythological backdrop for the stories that arose. It would be wonderful if the new dystopian craze introduced these wonderful works to a wider audience.

__________________
* I know that’s not how you decline Greek.
** Also, this is not about Mad Max.
*** As demonstrated by the common use of ‘the West’ to describe a group of nations of which (usually Anglo, almost always white) Australians see themselves as part, despite the fact that the only place to which Australia is west is New Zealand.
**** Think Picnic At Hanging Rock. Think Walkabout.***** This is why the Tomorrow series is so powerful, because the civilised space of hearth and home has been rendered dangerous, and the story’s heroes find the normally hostile wilderness a welcoming haven.
***** This is, obviously, a literary trope mainly employed by white (usually Anglo) Australians, and I think stems from a sense of guilt at what was done to the indigenous inhabitants of the land which Australian culture (until very recently) felt profoundly uneasy examining in an open way. And so it was explored in this slantwise manner.

Things don’t get no better, better than you and me March 20, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl.
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24 comments

Months and months ago I mentioned on Livejournal that I was intending to write a series of posts about my favourite literary couples – although I planned to expand that to include platonic couples, groups of friends, and families. Now I’ve finally got my act together and started working on this, and so I bring you the first of what will be a series of posts. This one is a rather arbitrarily-selected group of couples (in the romantic sense of the word). When selecting them, I had three criteria:
1. That they be a couple from a book or series that means or meant a lot to me
2. That they not be the sort of people usually found on such lists (no Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy)
3. That they be characters from books

The last criterion was simply to avoid massive headaches as if I’d included other types of texts, I’d be here still writing this after I’d finished my PhD!

Looking at the couples I came up with, I feel a bit disappointed at the heteronormativity of my list, and I know it’s more through my own fault than that of existing literature: There are great stories with GLTBQ couples, but I haven’t read many of them (with the possible exception of Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson). But I certainly don’t blame the straightness of this list on the ‘lack of good GLTBQ couples in literature’; that’s an unfair argument, and the fault is entirely my own.

At this point, I should warn you that there are spoilers for:
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott
Galax-Arena and Terra-Farma by Gillian Rubinstein
Romanitas and Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall
The Space Demons trilogy by Gillian Rubinstein
The Troy Game series by Sara Douglass
The Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden
The Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor
The Obernewtyn series by Isobelle Carmody
The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

1. ‘I touch the place where I’d find your face’: Breaking my heart into tiny, tiny pieces, every single time
Lyra and Will from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

They save the multiverse together by falling in love and acting on that love. Then they realise that they can’t live in the same universe, and they have to close all the windows between all the universes, or all consciousness will leak out of the entire multiverse. I cried for three days straight when I read how their story ended, and it’s still heartbreaking to think about.
Theme song: ‘Set the Fire to the Third Bar’ by Snow Patrol.
I find the map and draw a straight line
Over rivers, farms, and state lines
The distance from ‘A’ to where you’d be
It’s only finger-lengths that I see
I touch the place where I’d find your face
My finger in creases of distant dark places

Even the video clip is Lyra and Will-esque.

2. ‘What’s that waiting about?’: An (arranged) match made in Heaven (Together, they fight crime!)
Captain Anji and Mai from the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott.

The best thing about this pair is how practical they are, and how well matched. Anji is a shrewd military leader and manages to gain a great deal of prestige simply by showing up with his band of mercenaries at the right time in a threatened kingdom. But his success is almost equally due to Mai’s talents as a merchant – most particularly, her ability to negotiate and drive a hard bargain.

I’ve written before about how much I love this series because it’s a fantasy series that makes middle-class talents and middle-class occupations heroic, which is a very rare thing. I also love it because of the central couple. Anji and Mai marry for diplomatic and economic reasons, but they share a mutual respect that eventually blossoms into a practical, adaptable, generous kind of love. It’s not an all-consuming, country-destroying passion, and sometimes, you know, it’s nice to recognise that love doesn’t have to be that way.

Theme song: ‘Yours and Mine’ by Calexico’ (the song only comes in at 3.50, but it’s the only Youtube clip I could find).
Horses are chomping at the bit
The gate is nearly busted down
Moment before the calm of the storm
And everyone’s blood goes wild
Except yours and mine

3. ‘Everyone’s got a theory about the bitter one’: Kid-lit’s very own Spike and Dru
Presh/Wai-Chan and Allan ‘Allyman’ Manne from Galax-Arena and Terra-Farma by Gillian Rubinstein.

I have a huge soft spot for these two. Galax-Arena was the first book where I realised I was utterly uninterested in the heroine and wanted to read only about the villains of the piece. And what villains they are! Presh is from the streets of China, Allyman’s from the streets of Birmingham. They are among the ‘peb’ (‘people’) of the Galax-Arena, a circus arena in outer space that functions more like the Colosseum in Ancient Rome. The performers, all talented acrobats snatched from homeless, forgotten existences in the poorest cities of the world, believe they’re performing for aliens. In actual fact, their adrenaline is powering the immortality of wealthy, impossibly old people. If a performer dies, the rush of adrenaline is even greater.

Allyman eventually ends up as a recruiter for the Arena, with Presh initially as a sort of enforcer, and later, after falling pregnant, is abandoned in Terra-Farma, a place where the female children of dispossessed people are given away to wealthy men in countries with low female populations (such as China). The pair are profoundly messed up, with morality that is grey at best, and yet they are much more compelling than the mousy heroine of the story, Joella. I love them to bits.

Theme song: ‘To the Moon and Back’ by Savage Garden
Love is like a barren place and
Reaching out for human faith
Is like a journey I just don’t have a map for

5. ‘We spoke in tongues we never wanted spoken’: Across the barricades
Noviana Una and Marcus Novius Faustus Leo from the Romanitas series by Sophia McDougall.

Do I really need to explain this one? I adore stories about star-crossed lovers, particularly when they come from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Marcus is heir to the Roman Empire (but a Roman Empire which never ended, and is roughly contemporaneous with our own times). Una is a fugitive slave. But they met one another when they both possessed nothing but their lives – and even those were threatened – and they are delightfully co-dependent as a result.

I love them because they’re both such introverted, private people, and yet both of them find extroversion thrust upon them against their will: Marcus because, well, he’s of the Imperial dynasty and lives his life in the spotlight, and Una because she can read minds and thus hear the thoughts of everyone around her. They are so similar it’s uncanny, and I really hope things work out for them in the third book.

Theme song: ‘The Sea’ by Van She (the most introverted band I know).
And you said
Time would change these things
For you will always be the same
[…] Now that I’m awake
You know that we are broken
The tiny hand is past with doors
Were shut that now are open
.

6. ‘Why don’t you close your eyes and reinvent me? We can unwind all our flaws’: This is so messed up I need my head examined
Asterion/Weyland and Cordelia/Caela/Noah/Eaving from the Troy Game series by Sara Douglass.

This couple spend the first two books of this series hating (Asterion) and fearing (Noah) one another, mutually antagonistic. Noah (or Cordelia and Caela as she is then, wishes only for the love of Brutus. Asterion wishes only for Brutus’ ‘kingship bands’, which Noah has hidden. This being a Sara Douglass series, Asterion does some unspeakably awful things to Noah involving her womb (he plants an imp in it and causes the imp to be ripped out through her back), and then this is the start of a beautiful love affair of great epicness.

Theme song: How could it be anything other than ‘Mezzanine’ by Massive Attack?
We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to
We’ll see to
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
We can unwind all our flaws
.

7. ‘No one’s gonna take me alive’: Love is about compromises
Ellie and Lee from the Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden.

And oh, what compromises! These two fell in love while fighting a guerrilla war (as 16-year-olds) against invaders of Australia. Living rough in the bush, leading raids on their former home town, blowing up airfields, being condemned to death, Ellie and Lee find the time to fall spectacularly in, and then out, of love, while coping with PTSD, bullet wounds and having to grow up way too fast.

Their on-again, off-again relationship spans the entire war and its aftermath, and I’ve always appreciated that Marsden had the guts to show with these two that love is not easy, it’s not the cure for everything, and it’s not necessarily empowering or a protection against depression and other kinds of psychological illness. It just is.

Theme song: ‘Knights of Cydonia’ by Muse
No one’s gonna take me alive
The time has come to make things right
You and I must fight for our rights
You and I must fight to survive

8. ‘Where small birds sang and leaves were falling’: Love is not just for the young
Gordianus and Bethesda from the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor.

These two are in their fifties and have known one another since Gordianus was a starry-eyed, penniless young Roman traveller and Bethesda was a surly Egyptian slave. (I admit, the beginnings of their relationship are a bit…troubling, and I have heard of the argument that any relationship between a master and a slave is non-consensual, as the power imbalance makes consent impossible. BUT! Gordianus frees Bethesda and they then enjoy what appear to be thirty very happy years of marriage.)

I love Gordianus and Bethesda because in most of the books I read, adult couples are either absent or not discussed, and I find their relationship really heart-warming. After 40 years, Gordianus still thinks Bethesda is the most beautiful woman in the world, and remains both impressed and terrified by her subtlety of mind. For her part, Bethesda seems to love Gordianus, although the books are told from his point of view so it’s difficult to know what she’s really feeling.

Theme song: ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ by The Pogues
Take my hand, and dry your tears, babe
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe
There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow
They’re all gone, gone in the years, babe
.

9. ‘The will to greatness clouds the mind, consumes the senses, veils the signs’: Awwwww
Domick and Kella from the Obernetyn series by Isobelle Carmody.

I adore Domick and Kella because they’re just so adorable. He’s a Coercer, she’s a Healer. He’s a bit arrogant, a bit of a loner, and a bit at odds with the non-violent ideals of the rest of the Misfits. She’s compassionate, sociable, chatty, and totally horrified by any thought of violence. All together now…AWWWWW!

Of course, the fact that I loved Domick and Kella so much made it inevitable that Carmody would kill Domick off. I’m still bitter about that.

Theme song: ‘The Farthest Star’ by VNV Nation
Redeeming graces cast aside
Enduring notions, new found promise,
That the end will never come.

We live in times when all seems lost,
But time will come when we’ll look back,
Upon ourselves and on our failings.

Embrace the void even closer still,
Erase your doubts as you surrender everything:

We possess the power,
If this should start to fall apart,
To mend divides,
To change the world,
To reach the farthest star.
If we should stay silent.
If fear should win our hearts,
Our light will have long diminished,
Before it reaches the farthest star.

{Bonus awesome – the final lines of this song seem very Elspethy: Wide awake in a world that sleeps
Enduring thoughts, enduring scenes.
The knowledge of what is yet to come.
]

ETA; Jordan pointed out that I forgot to include my Space Demons couple. Well, you can find them here!

10.’Why don’t you play the game?’ : Best ‘It could never be, but I wish it would’ couple
Mario Ferrone and Elaine Taylor from the Space Demons trilogy by Gillian Rubinstein.

These two would never work. Even Rubinstein herself admits it in the epilogue to Shinkei, the third book in the series. Elaine grows up to be a famous dancer, touring the world. Mario grows up to be a ‘live fast, die young’ computer game writer, who occasionally phones up Elaine to tell her his life will be incomplete unless she marries him. ‘So far,’ Rubinstein writes, ‘she remains unconvinced’.

I shipped these two before I knew what shipping was. It seemed inconceivable that they could go through so much (being sucked into computer games and forced to work out whatever issues they might have – hate in Space Demons, fear in Skymaze and dreams (and the breaking thereof) in Shinkei) and not fall in love. Oh, how naïve I was!

I like Elaine and Mario because it’s a partnership of equals, and because the books are all about the need to work together, be less isolated and insular and live as part of a community. And, let’s face it, if you’ve travelled through an alternate reality built out of one another’s fears and dreams, you don’t really have much to hide from one another.

This pairing would never work out, and it’s not written for us to interpret it as working out, but I can’t help liking it quite a bit.

Theme: How could it be anything other than ‘Digital Love’ by Daft Punk?
You wrap your arms around too
But suddenly I feel the shining sun
Before I knew it this dream was all gone

Ooh I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
I wish this dream comes true

Ooh I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
We’ll make this dream come true

11. ‘The gentle genocide in your eyes’: Token Every Woman Loves a Bad Boy couple
Nick and Mae from The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan.

Because come on, if you’re not shipping them, you’re insane!

Theme songs: ‘Gentle’ by Strawpeople, just for that above quote, and
‘Love is a Stranger’ by Eurythmics
Love is a stranger in an open car
To tempt you in and drive you far away
[…]And love, love, love is a dangerous drug
To take you away and leave you far behind
.