July and books

I tell people far too frequently that some places have a bad month. I’m in the middle of Canberra’ bad month. I can’t escape it, either, and have not been able to since COVID first hit. This is one of the charming side-effects of being one of those who are vulnerable. This July is particularly nasty. It just is. It’s not the wind from the snow or the cold nights. It’s not lack of sunlight, though it might be the weak excuse for bright sunshine. It’s only partly drafts and open doors and friends forgetting promises to help. In fact, two friends are actually helping later in the week and I shall be that much less uncomfortable and I shall see them and July won’t be nearly as bad, that one day. Other friends have, these last few years, responded to my July-depression with “I can do this thing and it will help” and two thirds of them have succumbed to July before they could. This is the nature of July in Canberra. (I strongly recommend that if you have any friends who are confined for all these years, don’t make promises. It’s better not to promise than to give someone hope and then not follow through.)

What gets me through July, every year, but this horrid year in particular, is story. Only I’m grumpy and don’t want to talk about what I’ve been reading. I don’t want to drag you into my morass. Instead of telling you what I’m reading, then, I’m going to give you the names of three books that make me smile when I think of them. I’ve read them so often and I suggest them to everyone all the time. Just talking about them pulls me out of the winter gloom.

Not everywhere in Australia has winter gloom, by the way. An hour and a bit from here and you have the best snowfields in the world in July, but I cannot reach them and I cannot ski. I don’t want to ski. I want to make snow angels and drink mulled wine and eat hot chips and talk half the night with friends. This is not something that’s achievable. What is achievable is to think of novels set in that part of Australia. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series are those novels. They have been with me since I was a child, and one of the joys of moving to Canberra, 30+ years ago, was knowing that, if I looked carefully outside in a drive towards the deep mountains, past Cooma, I might see Thowra.

One of my favourite scenes in the Silver Brumby itself, has wattle, and the early, early wattle has just come out around the corner from me. A cold wattle, pale yellow and, just this once (because we missed autumn storms) concentrating wildly with the glowing leaves of the maple next to it. I wanted to take a picture, but it was dusk and it was the first time I’d walked anywhere in a month and I simply could not carry my camera. My phone doesn’t like pictures in the half-light. Still, the red maple and the pale golden wattle shone, and I thought of the Silver Brumby, and I smiled.

While I’m thinking of my childhood, let me dream of the Scotland of Peter Dickinson. I was supposed to be in Scotland this week, in Glasgow, attending a conference on fantasy. My paper had been accepted and I was wildly exciting. Then COVID had its say, and I’m stuck at home.

Dreaming of Emma Tupper’s Diary is not a bad way to think of Scotland. Submarines and dinosaurs and a girl who wrote a diary I wished I could have written, when I was her age.

My third novel is not as distant. I read it for the first time quite recently. Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird is for slightly older children. It has darkness and family culture and it’s dynamic and wonderful. Sometimes a dark novel takes one by the hand and offers a way out of despair. Lisa’s novel is that one. I know where she’s coming from for some of the novel, and we’ve talked about it and so, for me, it’s not the novel alone that makes me smile, it’s knowing that I have friends who are writers who write work that’s so moving. I start thinking of all my other writer-friends, including those who hang around this Treehouse. And I realise that it doesn’t matter how bleak Canberra is in July and how alone COVID can leave me (I haven’t seen my mother since January 2019, when the bushfires caused me to evacuate to her place), I live in a rich world.

The Power of Story

Last night (your Sunday night) I was putting together some material for my patrons. It includes an interview I did years ago with Carrie Vaughn, Seanan McGuire and Daniel Abraham. I was looking into what made the suddenly-very-trendy preternatural romance and adventure novels and going straight to three excellent writers on the topic seemed like a good idea.

It still does. I’m considering picking up my old habit of interviewing writers in groups, to find out what they think and who they are. If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know. In the interim, it may be years since the first novels of these three writers came out, but I made such an excellent choice of interview subject: they’re still all perfect for this difficult year. Good writing trumps tough times, I find.

These days using ‘trumps’ like that makes us think of politicians who lead people astray and make the hard, harder, but I want us to return to the pre-Donald use of the word. It comes from playing card games. Card games, like good light fiction, help when the emotions are really not up to heavy lifting. Still, I’d rather read Carrie or Seanan than play cards this month. Cards may be fun, but COVID is still with us and far too many of my friends are down with it. I want to step into a delightfully frothy werewolf tale or dream of sarcasm in fairyland.

My present to you for the Fourth of July then, is a reminder of the power of books to keep us sane when life goes awry.

The End (I Hope) of an Era

More than two years ago (around the Ides of March) and exactly like everyone else in the US, I was at home sheltering-in-place, dealing with both sudden too-much-time and the anxiety of a rapidly-spreading pandemic. My own way of dealing was to start sewing.

Remember those far-off days when getting N95 masks was a near impossibility, hand sanitizer and toilet paper were impossible to find, and it felt a little like the beginning of a long, uncertain siege? When things are uncertain or scary, I need to do something, and I settled on sewing masks. At the time I was hearing from medical professionals about the lack of PPE–not just masks, but scrub hats and scrub bags (for putting your scrubs in to take to and from work). I asked what was the best pattern… and was besieged with information. And yards of fabric (some of it was autoclaveable Halyard 600 medical fabric sent by a physician friend, but a lot of it was just delightful cotton prints). I started a Facebook group for people who wanted to sew masks etc. (“Coronavirus Hand-Sewist* Mask Makers”), and it took on its own life: patterns for masks, advice, commiseration, and of course, memes about sewing. Continue reading “The End (I Hope) of an Era”

March 769, 2020

That’s the date in my personal pandemic time. I start with March 17, 2020, when the Bay Area shut down. That was the first shut down in the United States.

Back then, I figured it would all blow over soon. I recall saying “I’ll go nuts if this is still going on in May.”

Maybe I did go nuts. I’m certainly not at my best. I saw an article in the paper about older people — mostly people about my age, not the very elderly — feeling like some of their life has been stolen from them.

I feel like that.

The other day I said to my sweetheart, “Do you think things will ever get better?”

And he said, “Look around you.”

It’s not just the pandemic. Russia invaded Ukraine and the news from there is horrific — not just war, but obscene war crimes. The only good thing I can get out of all that is that for once the U.S. government is doing the right thing. It’s a difficult problem, bringing back the fears of nuclear war that all us boomers grew up on, but near as I can tell the powers that be are actually balancing doing the right thing with making sure they don’t trigger something worse.

California is in a serious drought. We’re going to have more fires, because this land was meant to burn regularly, but the way things are set up we’re going to have out-of-control fires in areas where people live.

The politics in the United States have crossed over into absolutely insane. We don’t ever get a reasoned debate on how to solve problems because the right wing extremists keep making up absurd claims that are irrelevant to everything we need to do. Much of that is rooted in racism and misogyny and is being used to disguise all the ways they want to make the rich richer.

Meanwhile, more and more people are living on the streets. And despite the fact that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels even if you don’t take into consideration all the benefits given to oil companies, we’re still refusing to take action to shut down coal mines and fracking for gas and oil.

So the pandemic continues, now combined with with a pretense that it’s over. Authoritarianism runs wild. No one’s doing anything like enough to address climate change. And even in progressive places like Oakland it seems to be impossible to actually fix the problems in our everyday lives.

I have a bad feeling that the rest of my life will continue to be pockmarked with all these things. And it makes me very angry. Continue reading “March 769, 2020”

Story Matrices – the story behind Gillian Polack’s research

Today I’m wildly busy, but also celebrating. The research I’ve talked about at science fiction conventions for years is finally in print. Thanks to Luna Press, a Scottish SF publisher with an academic branch. The book is Story matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The reason I’m so tired and so very delighted is because this book was almost lost to the world because Canberra had bushfires and the bushfires made me ill. I had a week of doing normal everyday things before COVD hit Canberra and since then I’ve not been able to go to libraries, to attend face to face meetings and so much more. I’m not entirely a well person and so I’m one of those who have spent most of COVID seeing people only online. Occasionally I get out and pretend life is normal, but I’m always wearing a mask and it’s always risky.

Despite all this, my little study of how science fiction and fantasy is important in cultural transfer and explanation is officially available. It’s not the mega-study that I had intended, but, as someone earnestly said to me a couple of months ago “it’s much easier to read than it would have been if you’d written it the way you told me you would.”

There are so many things I want to tell you about this book.

I want to talk about how hard it is to write any book through brainfog and with lungs that don’t fully work. I want to explain that air should be breathable, not riddled with particles.

I also want to talk about how difficult it was to avoid the usual explanations of writers we no longer trust. Aided by the brainfog, my first draft kept falling into bad explanations of the changing relationships between Marion Zimmer Bradley, JK Rowling and their readers. I then looked at what I wrote and realised that I was doing exactly what my book explains: I was telling stories about them that explained who they were and their life choices. But my book isn’t about their life choices nor how we react to them. That I dislike a whole bunch of things about MZB’s private life and get angry about JK Rowling’s opinions about my friends is, to be honest, not useful. These are my emotions and my ethics and my personal opinions.

I need to get past the ethical questions and the personal. My research explains that how we tell stories is damned important. I needed to understand how we include our ethics and our thoughts about others into our work, often without knowing we’re doing this. I needed to write it out clearly. That was surprisingly difficult. Now that the book is out and people can read it, I’ll find out if I’ve succeeded.

It’s urgent that we understand why harmful stereotypes keep being updated and complex understanding of human beings is only appropriate for certain kinds of novels. This is why, instead of describing my own personal reactions of this author or the other, I needed to explain how novels give us tools that support one interpretation or another. I had to explore what some of those tools are and explain how they work.

My original plan was for a comprehensive explanation that changed the world. Life reduced this to an introduction, with lots of different entry points for readers and writers, so that they can explore for themselves the bits of the world they want to change. I looked at unique culture and shared culture, at what story space is for a reader and what it is for a writer, at how we build worlds for fiction and to play in. Understanding how Rowling and MZB’s work fits into this, helps us understand how their life choices creep into their fiction and gives us the capacity to understand which parts of that fiction are good and which are worrying. It takes us past stereotyping and into how that stereotyping plays out in novels.

This book is the next step after my History and Fiction work. It’s the precursor of a deeper exploration. Right now, I’m looking at how fairy tale retellings and fantasy world building operate in certain novels. Now that Story Matrices is out, I need to deepen my understanding of how we do what we do and what that means for our writing. I especially need to understand how the nicest people can use racist and bigoted cultural elements in their work, and how the most terrible people can write immensely popular and well-written novels. I need to do this non-judgmentally, because I am also capable, as a writer, of doing all these things. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing this writer has done”, I want to look at works and say “These are the techniques the writer has used.” Readers can make their own decisions about ethics and are perfectly capable of judging for themselves, but it really helps to have useful tools.

How culture is encoded into fiction and the cultural baggage fiction carries is not a simple matter. It’s a mosaic sparkling with colour and with outlines that move and perspectives that change. It’s easier to give simple descriptions and to announce, “I understand this.” It’s so simple to hate a book without understanding what the writer has actually done, what we’re reacting to with such force. There is a price for choosing the easy route. Our everyday lives become riddled with material we read in our fiction or watch on TV or in movies, or in comics or… in any narrative.

With the best intentions in the world, we can spread prejudice and support hate. That’s the extreme case, the one that’s right now playing out in a war in Eastern Europe, in the collapse of politics in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in may other places. I can see those stories in the convoy folk who descended on Canberra in February and have been giving us a hard time ever since.

So much of the things we do in our lives is influenced by the stories we love. Story Matrices is one step on my journey to understanding this. In a perfect world, it will help readers and writers see what we put into novels and what we take out of them. It will give us back choices about the aspects of culture we want to accept.

The Lessons Wombats Teach Me

This week is far too full of crises. Every time there’s a crisis, people raise money to help everyone deal. When the Australian bushfires dominated my life (aeons ago: 2109-2020 – the fires were out just after the pandemic hit Australia) books were a good fundraiser. I often contribute to such books, because they give more than I can give, personally. The anthology I was in that helped save wildlife during that particular crisis was called Oz is Burning. It contains some remarkable stories, and I’m very pleased I could contribute and be in such company.

There was one fundraising book that stood head and shoulders above all the others. Jackie French lives in rural Australia and she’s currently dealing with floods. Her part of rural Australia was very badly hit by the fires, and she handled it in a very Jackie-ish fashion. During the crisis she reported to the rest of us what was happening in her local town. She was cut off for what felt like months (I don’t know what it felt like to her, but I was worried about her for over a year) and she compiled observations and reports and made sure the rest of the world knew what was going on.

She reported on wildlife as part of this. Also, as someone who knows wombats particularly well.

One of the wombats she helped had a particular story. She talked about this wombat on social media and we all wanted a happy outcome… but we weren’t sure that the wombat would survive.

Later in 2020, she turned the wombat’s experience into a book for children. The Fire Wombat became an instant classic (though not as classic as her earlier book, The Diary of a Wombat ) and raised money to help wombats. It talks children through the crisis and how those rare animals who survived were helped. It gave children a path to understanding the impossible and, at the same time, raised money to help wombats.

I have my copy in front of me now and have re-read it. The floods in Australia right now are hurting the same regions as the fires did just over two years ago. Jackie’s work reminds me that wombats need help, too.

When we’re both allowed to travel again, and when it’s safe (fire and pandemic and now floods) I’m going to feed her dinner and ask her to sign her book. Her work has helped me remember how to get through crises and how to look outside my small environment and see what I can do. I may not be able to do much, but if Jackie can write this amazing book when she’s confined to a very small piece of land for over two years then that opens the door for me. I just need to consider what I’m capable of. Step One is to not let the fear developed by over 30 months of sequential crises decide my actions.

PS Jackie writes about so much more than wombats. She’s one of Australia’s best writers. I wrote this piece because wombats bring me comfort.

Comfort reading and food for the stressed soul

There are so many sayings that apply to weeks like this. They involve hope, sacrifice and cute concepts like the way the tough are expected to handle life. The trouble is that life can be too big to handle. This doesn’t mean I escape all the time. I don’t and I can’t. It does mean that I have certain types of comfort reading to remind me of what life can be like on other days. Or maybe in other decades.

Different types of crises require different types of comfort reading. When my father died, I re-read every Swallows and Amazons book – I was only 7 years removed from my teens and I needed to remind myself of who I had been as a child. When I was unable to type or do housework for 18 months, I read Regency romances. I would walk back from the library carrying as many as I could, and reading as I walked, to distract myself from the pain. When the bushfires dominated my life and then the pandemic began, I put up a list of (sometimes supportive and sometimes quite edgy) comfort reads for people who needed them . I have so many types of comfort reading and they all match my needs at a given time.

Today, with the war and the pandemic and Too Much Stuff Altogether, I wanted to find one single book that exemplified the kind of writing I am looking for right now. I thought that if I did this, maybe you would also find those single perfect volumes and we could share our comfort reading. If I get a big enough list, I’ll put up a 2022 comfort reading page on Bookshop.com.

It wasn’t that hard to find two perfect books, both by the same writer. I live in one of the world cities that’s plagued by demonstrators. Those demonstrators tell us to be kind to them and then proceed to hurt our lives. I was just getting out of lockdown and their careless for the health of others means that I can’t do quite a few things. They’re ensuring that this city is not COVID-safe for people like me, no matter how much care everyone else takes.

This means I needed quiet suburban joy. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City and Tales from Outer Suburbia are that. My mind lives in a strange universe and Tan sees it and paints it and writes about it and I feel comfort. So much comfort.

Pivotal times and their books

I’ve been thinking all day about Louise Lawrence’s first novel, Andra. I read it when it was first released in 1971. I was ten and there was one scene where Andra (the protagonist) was addressing a crowd and winning them over. That scene helped me become a bit more political and when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, I could hear some of the devices used in Andra’s speech in what he said. Whitlam was an amazing speaker and very witty, so the combination of the book and the politician were big influences on me.

This isn’t why I was thinking of Andra today, however.

Andra is a political novel. It’s science fiction, about how teenagers handle authoritarian governments and about how governments talk and listen and where everyone fails. That was my reading of it when I was a child then again when I was a teenager, anyhow. It was a novel I read for comfort whenever anything politically challenging happened.

For two weeks now, my city has been visited by protesters. The unruly mobs causing problems in many capital cities have not spared Canberra. We normally support demonstrations here, but this one is different. If you want to know just how different and why it’s so very uncomfortable, find me and chat about it. While many of the protesters are probably exceptionally nice and simply want a better world, there are enough seriously disruptive and difficult people among them to turn a crowd into a mob. A mob during a pandemic is not a good thing.

I need a novel that’s as important to me now as Andra was in the 1970s. I don’t know if one exists, or whether I need to write it. If I have to write it, I haven’t reached the moment where I know what is critical in it. All I know is that something in me needs a book that touches that emotional trigger and makes it possible for me to think past the politics of this strange situation and to reach the heart of it.

It’s funny, because when I was ten I needed the opposite. I needed a novel that taught me that politics existed and that words could address it and that not everything worked out well all the time.

If I find that book that I need, I might have to compare it with Andra and to discover how fifty years of my life has shaped me. Or maybe I’ll discover what fifty years in the world has done to our image of politics. Andra was written soon after the 1968 student protests and in the middle of the Cold War. In years leading up to Andra humans travelled in space and landed on the moon. The Chicago Seven were put on trial and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty changed international relations. The Beatles broke up and Hutt River Province seceded from Australia. I didn’t know any of this, of course, but Andra was published in one of those pivotal times when everything changed. This is why Whitlam became Prime Minister, in fact. We used to sing “It’s time”  – the election jingle that helped persuade voters to choose a different party to the one that had ruled for 23 years.

We’re in one of those times now. No-one told me when I was ten just how uncomfortable pivotal periods can be. I hope I find that book.

On Not Tolerating the Intolerable

The pandemic buzzword these days is “endemic,” which is being used to mean Covid’s going to stick around so we might as well just go back to normal lives.

That is not what endemic means, of course. Endemic means an illness that constantly exists at a baseline level of some amount in an area without being brought in from elsewhere. The common cold is endemic in most places. So are a few more dangerous illnesses — the plague, for example.

The other key thing about endemic disease is that the illness doesn’t spread at an epidemic pace. Covid’s clearly not close to endemic. Here’s a piece in Nature that explains that better than I can.

Also, just because an illness becomes endemic doesn’t mean everything is rosy. In the Nature article, Oxford Professor Aris Katzourakis points out:

A disease can be endemic and both widespread and deadly. Malaria killed more than 600,000 people in 2020. Ten million fell ill with tuberculosis that same year and 1.5 million died.

I recall a doctor who was working for a pharmaceutical company telling me years ago that no companies wanted to work on TB drugs because there wasn’t any money in it. That’s why those people are dying.

Coming back to the virus at hand: what endemic does not mean and should never be used to mean is letting people die so we can get back to “normal.”. But in many corners of the U.S., people are using the term to mean precisely that. Continue reading “On Not Tolerating the Intolerable”

Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.

Why?

It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.