On Real Conversations

One of the wonderful things about East Bay Booksellers is that the books they put on display by the cash register tend to be small press gems rather than those books you buy as a gift because they’re “cute” that no one ever reads.

Case in point: a book called Anarchy—In a Manner of Speaking, which is a set of conversations by the late (and great) David Graeber with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman.

I was in the store picking up something else, saw it for the third time, and decided I needed to have it. I came home and started reading and bam! There on the second page was something that I needed to know, even though I hadn’t realized it: the importance of dialogue — real dialogue — among people in both understanding the world and creating better systems.

Graeber ties anarchist practice to dialogue, in particular “a certain principle of dialogue.” He explains:

[T]here’s a lot of attention paid to learning how to make pragmatic, cooperative decisions with people who have fundamentally different understandings of the world, without actually trying to convert them to your particular point of view.

That alone connected two discrete parts of my life: developing co-ops and training in Aikido. In both of those activities, it is vital to have that kind of dialogue to accomplish anything.

In Aikido, of course, we have that dialogue physically, but it is the same thing. Your partner attacks and you have an exchange that will resolve the situation. If you handle it well, the situation shifts without harm to either party.

I’ve found over the years that bullying people until they agree to your point of view never works. Even if you get agreement in the short term, there’s a good chance of losing it. In Aikido, if you try to force a solution, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Continue reading “On Real Conversations”

The Joy of a New Book

SpearThere are lots of ways to pick a book to read. Subject matter. Genre and sub-genre. A great cover. Reviews. Blurbs. Reading the first page and getting hooked.

But one of the best ways to choose a book is because you’ve read other work by the author that knocked your socks off. This works with both fiction and non-fiction.

It also doesn’t matter if the story is about something you didn’t think you were particularly interested in, because in the hands of a master writer, you will find yourself entranced.

Case in point: Spear, by Nicola Griffith.

It happens that Nicola is one of those writers whose books I always read. I have read all of her novels and a lot of her short fiction. She brings something unique in everything she writes, regardless of the genre.

For example, I don’t read a lot historical fiction, but Hild is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I recently re-read it in anticipation of the sequel, Menewood, which will be out a year from now.

So all I needed to know to pre-order Spear was that Nicola wrote it. Other than that, all I knew was that it was fantasy set in early medieval Britain and that the main character was a woman. Continue reading “The Joy of a New Book”

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.

Getting Their “Comeuppance”

Comeuppance Served ColdI heard Marion Deeds read from her novella Comeuppance Served Cold – just out from Tor – at one of last year’s FOGcon virtual readings. During the question period afterwards, I asked, “So is this homage to Dashiell Hammett?”

She was pleased that I picked up on the tone of the book. As she noted in the acknowledgements, Hammett’s take on the West Coast wealthy during the 1920s and 30s provided inspiration.

So while this book is fantasy – complete with magicians, shapeshifters, and a hint of the Fair Folk – it takes place in the corrupt worlds of human power that the noir and detective stories of the Prohibition years made famous.

It’s a delightful book. Some of its biggest charms are things that would be spoilers, so let me just say that if you like the idea of urban fantasy set in Hammett’s world, you won’t be disappointed.

One charm that’s not really a spoiler is that while some of the magic is intertwined with the political power dealing common to such books, the story includes the racism and other ugly reality of the non-magical side of things.

Shapeshifters are treated badly in this magical world even though many of them served valiantly in World War I, but this is in addition to, rather than an allegory for, the abusive treatment of African Americans. Continue reading “Getting Their “Comeuppance””

Ways of Telling Stories

BoothLast week I realized Karen Joy Fowler’s latest book was out, so I walked over to East Bay Booksellers to pick up a copy of Booth.

I’d considered waiting. It has never occurred to me to be interested in the family of John Wilkes Booth.

But on the other hand, if I have not read every piece of fiction published by Karen Joy Fowler since I stumbled over an early collection of her short stories in a bookstore in New York City sometime in the 1980s, it is not for want of trying.

I still adore “The View From Venus,” which is one of the first of her stories I ever read. I had a fight with an editor of a science fiction review magazine when I wanted to name “What I Didn’t See” as my favorite story of the year. (He said it wasn’t science fiction. SFWA members disagreed — it won the Nebula that year.)

The Jane Austen Book Club is the only book I can remember that was embraced with equal enthusiasm by my mother, my sister, and I (all big readers, but with different tastes). My friend Anne Sheldon, with whom I share a passion for baseball, got me a signed copy of The Sweetheart Season as a gift.

And We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves blew me away.

So I bought Booth and ended up staying up into the wee hours to finish it the other night because it was just that good.

This was not a case of not being able to put the book down because I had to know what happened next. Booth is an historical novel about the family of the man who murdered Abraham Lincoln. You go into it knowing how it has to end. Continue reading “Ways of Telling Stories”

CODA

When I to went Clarion, waaaaaay back in the day, Algis Budrys taught a lesson on the five beat plot (variously the seven beat plot, the well-made plot, and I’m sure there’s another dozen names for it somewhere). The five beat plot boils down to: 1) the heroine has a problem; 2) the heroine attempts a solution; 3) an obstacle thwarts the solution; 4) the heroine solves the problem; 5) validation. (There are many different names for the five segments, but that’s the essence of the thing.)

Think of stories you’ve read, stories you’ve perhaps loved. I have this dread ring of power, see. I must destroy it! We gather our team. I hit obstacles (boy, do I hit obstacles). Eventually, through toil, danger, and blood, I destroy the ring. But not only have I destroyed the ring, the quest etc. has changed me on a fundamental level. I get to vanish into the West with the elves (and does anyone but me wonder if Bilbo ever felt homesick or bored, there among the elves?). I bet you can think of a zillion works, from Austen to Zelazny, which employ this bare-bones outline.

No, the five beat plot isn’t the only way to tell a story, Continue reading “CODA”

A Few Words About the US Constitution

Allow Me to RetortElie Mystal, who writes about legal matters for The Nation, has written an excellent book about what’s wrong with the U.S. Constitution: Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution. I reviewed this book for Washington Lawyer — the District of Columbia Bar magazine — and I recommend that everyone who is concerned about the future of the United States and our democracy read it.

I know a lot of people worry that if we try to fix the Constitution we’ll lose the good stuff in it, but the last few years have made it very clear that the flaws in it — both the ones built in by those who didn’t want true democracy and the ones that have been introduced by some very bad court decisions — are too damaging to ignore.

But don’t take my word for it. Read Mr. Mystal.

 

A Plea for Better Movies

In a December piece in The New York Times, Nikita Richardson ( a Times staffer) says that The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies was for millennial women what Star Wars was for an earlier generation.  She cites the gentle scenes between characters — not just Aragorn and Arwen, but between Sam and Frodo as well as other male characters — and notes that she and her sister and her friends rewatched it countless times.

I gather  she means that both series were a touch point for those who were teenagers when they first saw them. Both series were compelling, so this makes sense.

I was older than that even for Star Wars, and in truth my love of the first three of those movies had a lot to do with them being well-made space opera with incredible special effects at a time when the movies didn’t do that.

My fondness for the Lord of the Rings movies had more to do with my love of the books, which dates back to my college years. (I re-read the entire trilogy every semester during law school finals. I am not exaggerating. It kept me sane.)

Plus I’m a fantasy and SF writer and reader and remember all too well when those things didn’t get noticed beyond the cons. So it makes me happy to see them shared far and wide.

But on the whole, her essay broke my heart, because if teenage girls fixated on Lord of the Rings — a story in which there are only three women of any note among a multitude of men — it is one more reminder of how utterly our popular culture has continued to fail women. Continue reading “A Plea for Better Movies”

The Future Is Starting Right Now

The Ministry for the FutureKim Stanley Robinson is an optimist.

If you only read chapter 1 of The Ministry for the Future, you might not believe that. But even though his novel opens with a horrific and all too realistic disaster caused by climate change — and later describes several others — he isn’t writing a dystopia.

Rather he’s writing a story in which human beings find ways to deal with climate change without pretending that the process won’t be messy.

I called him an optimist, not Pollyanna. (Do people still read Pollyanna?)

He knows how bad things are and how much worse they can get, but he also knows we are capable of making things better. In this book, the efforts to address climate change include everything from economics to politics to geoengineering to violent actions against those who refuse to take action to stop carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

There’s also what happens with climate refugees, mental breakdowns among those who have suffered from disasters, and violence against those working for real change. It’s a long book.

I have no doubt that we’re going to see something similar to the disorder he chronicles here over the next 30 years or so. I hope he’s right that we’ll get some of the positive changes, too.

He has more faith in political change than I have, but Wikipedia reports that Francis Fukuyama, who was notoriously wrong about the end of history, has called the book “ludicrously unrealistic.”

If I have to choose between Stan Robinson and Francis Fukuyama, I’m going with Stan every time. Continue reading “The Future Is Starting Right Now”

Merlin and Benedeit Keep Appearing

It doesn’t matter what I do, Merlin appears, as if by magic. He even appeared over Christmas, as one of his stories has some very interesting parallels with a Jewish version of the life of Jesus. This led to (as night leads to day) me looking for the first Merlin-like book I could see on my shelves. It was a textbook.

Some textbooks discourage reading. Others say “Read this bit and then that, then go find the works I’ve introduced to you.” Merlin through the Ages (ed R.J. Stewart and John Matthews) is definitely one of the latter. I’ve never read the whole book. I have, however, read some of the works extracted. All the Medieval ones and just enough of the others so that I can (occasionally) feel as if I’m almost educated. I bought it when I was teaching this kind of subject and, even though I’ve no space for more books, I can’t get rid of it because… what if I need it again?

The reason I haven’t read it from beginning to end is partly because the type is tiny and partly because the table of contents is overwhelmingly male, but mostly because I have favourite Merlin stories elsewhere and every time I open this book (even when I was using it for teaching) I would have put it down within fifteen minutes. I didn’t put it down because the book was dull, but because I kept wanting to check something else. At least half the time, that something else was T.H. White. There is no extract from T.H. White in this book, you see, and I felt I owed him a re-read.

There was one other thing I did with this book. I came to it too late for it to be a source book for my first novel. Illuminations was based on medieval versions of a whole bunch of stories we take for granted, so this volume would have been perfect except… I’d already written a large chunk of the novel. I used Merlin through the Ages to remind myself of where I’d been in my research.

Just considering this takes me back to the actual research for the bits that were borrowed from the Middle Ages. I wandered through the stacks at Fisher Library and grabbed all the things I wanted to read that I had no real excuse to read, and I read them for my novel. To this day I don’t know why I thought that reading nineteenth century editions of Medieval stories was a holiday from reading all kinds of editions (and a bunch of manuscripts, not edited) of Medieval stories.

The story that got me started was Benedeit’s The Voyage of St Brendan, which I studied, word by word as part of my Masters degree. My edition of this is still sitting on the bookshelf. It was edited by Short and Merrilees, both of whom had the misfortune of teaching me. I might hand the Merlin compendium to someone who wants it more than I do and has better eyesight, but my Benedeit is going nowhere. I even slipped a quiet tribute to my teachers and to Benedeit into Illuminations.

I lard my novels with secret messages to books I love. This is, I think, a very good thing, even if I’m the only one who knows they’re there.