A thing that bugs me

in historical fiction, is when the characters have to address some issue that is controversial in their time, but which the author sees as having a clear right side and a wrong side. And the author decides that their main character just has to be On The Right Side Of History.

There are ways to have that and still write a solid story, but unfortunately what often happens is that putting the character on the Right Side comes at the expense of nuance and detail in both the character’s thought process and background, and in the setting’s worldbuilding and/or historical accuracy.

Basically there are two awkward things for authors in this situation:

— A historically accurate character might hold approximately the belief we want them to hold, but might describe it in a way that sounds outdated or disrespectful from our point of view.

— A character with a detailed personality and history could explain how they came to hold the “right” belief, in an emotionally plausible and/or historically accurate way, but then we’d have to think about the fact that they used to not believe it and that would be uncomfortable.

(And also, to even get to the point of considering these questions, the author has to themself have thought about the issue in more complicated terms than “x is wrong,” and they have to do the research to know what people were saying about the issue historically and how that differs from how people think about it now.)

These problems are almost worse when it comes to creating villain characters, but it’s late so I’m going to stop here.

One of my favorite things about the Lieutenant Leary books is how concerned Daniel and Adele get for each other. Every time they’re not in the same room and one of them sends a radio message/etc., they get all

“Oh, Daniel’s voice sounds so strained! What’s wrong? Well, his ship is taking off, it’s probably just the acceleration.”

“Oh, was that a quaver in Adele’s voice? Or was it just interference? When Adele is in charge of my ship’s communications, she makes sure there’s never any interference…”

I mean, the tone of tender concern isn’t actually that obvious, but it’s there! Practically every time they talk to each other long-distance, they do this. They are so. fucking. cute.

————-

The other thing I love is how– very explicitly– none of the characters are perfect, and in fact, most of their talents not only come with flaws but are also flaws. The particular worldview and attitude and thinking style that makes someone excellent at one job also means they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to other jobs that require different skills. A character can be avowedly The Best fill-in-the-blank In The Navy and also be mediocre at best at other equally important skills, and that’s totally normal and doesn’t in any way detract from their awesomeness at their particular area. It’s not a sad, fatal flaw to shake your head at, nobody expects them to be any different. The characters are lovingly accepting of each others’ flaws, even when they could be frustrating.

I’m re-reading Gaudy Night

(which is one of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels by Dorothy Sayers.)

It’s been long enough since I last read it that I’ve been completely blindsided by several important plot points, which was fun. But I apparently also forgot just how gross and scary some of it is.

Continue reading “I’m re-reading Gaudy Night”

Books I can’t stop thinking about

The Way the Crow Flies and Fall On Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald. These books both give me Literary Feelings so I’m going to structure my reviews that way.

What is The Way the Crow Flies about?

From a content warning perspective:
Murder, child sexual abuse. There isn’t a great deal of detail, but the POV character is sexually assaulted.

From a plot perspective:
A big, sprawling, complicated murder mystery with a good half-dozen other intersecting mysteries, worthy of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Begins over a lonely dead body, rewinds to show the months leading up to her murder, and ends years later, with the main characters resolving to finally put everything behind them (intercut with the true story of how she died.) I feel like it also has just a dash of suspense/horror story, since the ending is only happy for the main characters to the extent that they’re still alive, and I was completely blindsided by the truth about the murder and definitely felt like I was in suspense until the reveal– you may not be taken in as badly as I was.

From a thematic perspective:
This book is about secrets, people’s choices to keep or reveal them, and how people cope with and rationalize those choices. It has a complicated and very engaging plot, but it’s wrapped around a passionate essay about why people don’t always report crimes or tell the truth to the police, and why guilty people don’t always go to jail.

What I want you to know:
This is one of exactly two books that I’ve cried while reading and kept reading through the tears. It is that compelling.

 

What is Fall On Your Knees about?

From a content warning perspective:

Racism, rape, child sexual abuse, incest, death, some body-horror-ish things relating to pregnancy.

From a plot perspective:

Fall On Your Knees is the tangled, fucked-up story of a rapist and three-ish generations of his family trying to make lives for themselves and be happy.

From a thematic perspective:

This book is about blame and how hard it is to assign. How good people who are trying to do what’s right can become complicit in awfulness. How trying to work with and around someone who might hurt people, instead of openly rejecting them, can seem like the only option but only works for so long.

 

 

Reading The Dispossessed again

and it occurs to me that some of Shevek’s problems are related to what I was thinking about re: people understand institutional power structures but not power and abuse between individuals.

So the main character of this book, Shevek, comes from a planet that was colonized by anarchists.  They were exiled from their homeworld and they built their own new community on its moon– no central government, no personal property, no money, a new language that doesn’t even have words for “mine” and “yours” and “money” and “buy”.  And it all works, and surprisingly well, considering that the planet is very arid and not particularly well-suited to human life. 

But you can’t have a whole planet for 150 years (even a very sparsely populated one) where everyone actually understands and believes in the principles you want the society to be founded on.  The Anarresti do stunningly well.  They make the main part of their ideals part of the basic culture that everyone grows up with.  But there are always going to be people who don’t get it or don’t want to get it (leaving aside that receiving something as the dominant culture is different from studying it and choosing it for yourself) and there are.  There are people who see the main character’s work (in theoretical physics) as prestigious, as easier than work that involves manual labor, and they resent him– even knowing that he, like everyone else, helps with the heavy drudgery tasks when extra hands are needed.  There are people who– despite the ostensible absence of both positions of authority and any kind of prestige or fame for your work– try to get control and authority in the universities, and try to control Shevek in order to get prestige for themselves from his work.  There’s an almost hilarious scene where Shevek finds out that one of the older physics professors has published something that is entirely Shevek’s work, without Shevek’s knowledge, putting his own name first.  Shevek says he wants to publish something else, himself; the other profesor tries to convince him not to, then backpedals–

“You don’t need permission!  This isn’t some kind of hierarchy, you know!  I can’t stop you.  All I can do is give you my advice.” 

“You’re the Press Syndicate’s consultant on manuscripts in physics.  I thought I’d save time for everyone by asking you now.”

What the wonderful Ursula Le Guin shows us is this: as hard as you work, and you can work very hard, people are always going to have power over each other, and some of them are always going to misuse it use it as power over people, to force people to do what they want, instead of being the responsible decision-maker for the community that they’re supposed to be.

Sparkly is watching a show about the cheerleaders for the Dallas Cowboys.

It’s about 1/3 cool dancing and gymnastics, and the other 2/3 could be a documentary about the power of society’s body standards and how it’s maintained.

So, first of all, everyone there– everyone who even tries out– is extremely fit and can rightly be described as an athlete.

But then they also have to live up to the highest possible standards for their appearance.  And the coaches’ attempts to impose both of those are a lesson in all kinds of things.

In this episode the coaches called aside a number of the cheerleaders to tell them that they need to lose weight.  They’re not anything remotely close to fat, but their stomachs look a tiny bit soft and jiggly instead of “flat and smooth and almost hollow” or “visible abs” which are the acceptable looks.  It’s not that much of a difference they’re asking for.  Like ten pounds or less.  But when you’re already very muscular, and you need to eat enough to get through strenuous exercise and stay healthy, I can only imagine it’d be pretty hard to find the sweet spot that actually lets you lose that weight.

They were crying when they left the coaches’ office.  Being so close to perfect doesn’t make it any less painful when those standards are enforced against you.

One of them this little tight angry scared comment about them being “the fatties on the team”.  And the coaches came down on her like a ton of bricks.  She is “toxic in the locker room”, “toxic to her teammates”, “bad attitude”.  And it might not even have occurred to me to examine that but clearly the coaches know it means something.  It’s a tiny bit of fighting back against body shaming.  She doesn’t really believe that fat isn’t a bad thing, you can tell from her tone (even this tiny speck of fat), but she’s saying it herself before someone else can say it to her.  And even that is too much rebellion for them.

It reminds me of this article about working in a warehouse.  Among many shitty things the author experienced, the workers were expected to meet extremely unrealistic speed standards.  And more than that, they were expected to play along.  If you said “I’m working as hard as I can already, I can’t meet these standards,” you got fired.  You had to always say that yes, you’d failed, and you’d try harder next time.

I think that the coaches here are creating a similar situation.  They want the cheerleaders to agree that their current weight is completely unacceptable, agree that they can make it acceptable, and accept responsibility for fixing it.

When the truth is that it’s only a problem by the pickiest standards imaginable, they probably haven’t done anything “wrong” to gain weight, and it’s hit or miss whether they’ll be able to lose it.

They rejected one new trainee because she had the wrong body type to look good in their uniform.

She auditioned, she got provisionally accepted, she did all this work, and then they photograph her in the uniform for the first time and it’s “her calves are huge, her legs look too short, she looks awful.”  She and the coaches both know it’s nothing she can fix.  Those calves are solid muscle.  But they still told her she’s too big, and she still cried about it.

One thing is cute and awesome and joyous about the Honorverse, representation-wise:

There’s a kinky couple. (And they are SO cute.)

Now, my recollection is that the way that the authors fade-to-vagueness for their sex scene is kind of awkward, and kind of shows that they don’t really know what the specifics of their kinkiness should actually be, but– still!

How many other published-by-a-major-publishing-house books have I read that had any kind of kink in them, much less a happy, functional relationship?  As far as I can remember, one of the Burke books by Andrew Vachss.   (There are some kinky things in other books by him, but they’re pretty dysfunctional.  Poor Shella.)

I guess this isn’t something I think about a lot, because I get so much representation out of fanfic, and online original works.  So the Burke series basically occupies the same space in my mind as Tales of MU, in terms of representation.  But in retrospect– what a thing that series is!  A trans woman, a Deaf man, a kinky lesbian couple, assorted former and current sex workers, lots of people of color, of various races including “Jesus, can’t people just stop trying to guess my race from my apperance?” mixed… all of them with these things a legitimate part of who they are, with an actual effect on them, but not the only thing about them.  It’s pretty fucking glorious.  And the plot and the message are so compelling and so forceful that these books have been a part of my life for most of a decade but it never occurred to me until yesterday that the author was probably deliberately trying to write a diverse cast.

Minty is a bad fan and watched the first Star Trek reboot movie for the first time today.

Mixed feelings:

  • The occasional references to TOS music in the soundtrack.  The closing credits music was fun, the rest of the time it weirded me out, because I was distracted trying to figure out what I was hearing.
  • The re-use of/references to people’s “catchphrases” and memorable lines from TOS.  Funny: Scotty giving the engines all he’s got.  Poorly delivered: Bones being a doctor not a physicist.  Full of feels: Spock repeating the goodbye that Kirk should recognize but doesn’t.  Weird: Bones calling Spock a goblin and all that other stuff was fond and joking in TOS, where they were close friends who’d known each other for years.  When they hardly know each other (I’m assuming?) it feels uncomfortably xenophobic.

Assorted uncomfortable racial stuff:

  • Giving the Romulans our present-day idea of “”tribal”” tattoos.  The Romulans we meet are from the original continuity.  There’s no reason for them to look different.  New!Spock even mentions that Romulans and Vulcans are related, so there’s no reason they should need to look more different than they used to… except to make them look more evil.
    • Edit: apparently we’re informed somewhere that facial decorations are a traditional Romulan thing for mourning?  I’m still not sure about them. 
  • It wouldn’t bother me that other less-human-looking species are mostly in the background– that’s the way it was in TOS– except that Scotty’s diminutive, non-speaking, comic relief buddy exists and the only other less-humanoid character who’s on screen for more than three seconds is the archetypal Green-Skinned Space Babe that Kirk gets interrupted with.
    • Yes, the trope of the cute little comic relief “not really a person” character bothers me a lot.  This doesn’t really have to do with race but I consider any amount of “not really a person” to be a bad sign in terms of respect for people who don’t look like you.  And yeah, apparently he is supposed to be both a Starfleet officer and unable to speak the language used by all other Starfleet officers.  Because he’s too inhuman-looking to speak.  Well then.
  • All the other Vulcan kids at Spock’s school look exactly like him, which is funny and harmless except it means they’re all white.  There’s at least one darker-skinned Vulcan later, but it would be nice if they’d make more of an effort to show that all Vulcans do not look like Spock.
  • Representation of human races in Starfleet was… semi-okay?  I mean, there were some people of color besides Sulu and Uhura.  There was one woman on the Enterprise’s bridge with an awesome afro.  But the background characters were pretty damn mostly white; I’m guessing above 80%.

Overall, it’s awfully white and awfully human. Uncomfortable gender stuff:

  • Jesus Christ could Kirk be any more of a self-centered douchebag?  Seriously, what is that scene with Uhura in the bar supposed to tell us?  Because it tells me I don’t want to be alone with him.  It also makes me a little sad that that scene doesn’t end with Uhura kicking both Kirk’s and White Knight Security Crewman’s asses.  I mean, she shows some ability to take care of herself (Oh God I’d forgotten Kirk gropes her during the fight.  Seriously how are we supposed to like him?) but she’s definitely not in control of the situation.
  • Why do we need to see Uhura in her underwear?  We.  Don’t.  The amount of scantily-clad fanservice (or Gene-Roddenberry-service, since I’m told he was the one who insisted on having as many skimpy costumes as possible) in TOS was one of the most disappointing things about it.  I’m not impressed that they decided to reprise it.  See also the aforementioned Green-Skinned Space Babe.
  • This movie also has a slight case of Women In Refrigerators/ women as emotional plot points instead of characters, with Spock’s mother and a little bit with Kirk’s mother.  (Do we see Kirk’s mother onscreen after the flashback birth scene?  If I remember correctly we don’t.  So she only exists to be saved by Kirk’s dad.)  Hell, and with Niro’s wife, too.
  • In other words, all the named female characters either die dramatically, do nothing but get rescued dramatically, or strip for us.  And then Uhura does one useful thing.  Fuckers.

I just really don’t know what to think of Kirk.  He takes the character type of the reckless, uneducated, doesn’t-follow-orders yet is somehow always right guy to a greater extreme than I knew was possible.  He snaps between being SO reckless and irresponsible to SO smart and correct that it breaks my suspension of disbelief a little.  I didn’t know it was possible to be worse than Naruto in this respect.  I seriousl don’t know what we’re meant to think of him. I am gradually wrapping my mind around the fact that these are not really the same characters– their lives are different, they’re younger, they’re not supposed to have the same personalities.  But it’s really jarring. I totally see what people mean when they say this movie is more action-y.  It’s really fast-paced, and while it has humor, it’s mostly the sort of humor that’s squeezed in really quickly while running to save the world.  TOS humor was moderate-paced banter in the course of the everyday running of the ship.  TOS was also way more likely to slow down before the exciting moment, to create suspense, instead of after so you can take in what happened. Spock Prime is the only thing about this movie that I unreservedly love.  (Sulu studying fencing would be a distant second.) Overall I really feel like this movie is not meant for me.  It’s meant for a man, who’s comfortable with men being the focus of the plot, thinks that don’t-take-no-for-an-answer flirting is totally cool, and likes fast-paced action movies.

Today in “things that Minty is reading”

or rather, things Minty read a while ago but can’t stop thinking about:  Shadow of the Templar and sequels by M. Chandler.

Mostly, it is an awesome, exciting series about a team of FBI agents who pursue (and eventually accept help from) a famous art thief.  The dialogue is wonderful.  There’s a lot of sharp, witty banter, and also some just comfortable silly banter among the team members.  I laughed a lot.  There are also a lot of very imaginative cunning plots, on both sides.  On the whole, I definitely recommend it.  (Yes, despite the fact that I’m about to criticize the hell out of it and accuse it of various -isms.  It depends on what you personally are willing to put up with.  I really did get a lot of enjoyment out of it despite what’s below the cut.)

There are three other things I want to tell you about it, though– one is a FEELINGS, and two are somewhat more thoughtful criticism.  I’m going to talk about the plot a bit, so if you don’t want anything spoiled, stop here.

Continue reading “Today in “things that Minty is reading””

Because I started compiling this list in my head anyway:

Things that are exceptionally cool about the Jacky Faber series:

There are queer characters.  Some of them are nasty people, but some of them are awesome and are among the main character’s closest friends.  They have desires and relationships (though most of the relationships are offscreen.  I sort of wish the author would let Higgins say more about his love life than “I made many friends at Harvard and we spent a lot of late nights discussing poetry, wink wink.”)

In later books, there are POC characters, for whom the same applies (African-Americans, some Native Americans, and the main character also spends one book in various parts of southeast Asia, but I haven’t read that one in a while so I can’t tell you exactly who’s represented there.)

The characters actually talk about slavery, despite how tempting some authors apparently find it to let their characters wander through the southern US pre-Civil War without ever meeting any slaves or thinking about slavery.  The author also clearly tries very hard not to oversimplify the issue, which I am mostly in favor of, although I think he may go a little too far towards “complicated” and away from “clearly bad”.  There’s one character who chooses to stay in slavery when she could have escaped, saying that she’s treated so well that it doesn’t really matter that she’s a slave on paper.  I suspect that there are plenty of people who are more sensitive to this than me, who would say that that’s an offensive idea no matter whether it makes sense for the character.  For myself, I’m pretty much willing to forgive the author for that in light of Angelique’s story in the fourth book, which has plenty of both slavery is horrible and also emotional entanglement, as Hitherby Dragons would call it, between Angelique the slave and Clarissa the owner’s daughter, who was raised to believe all sorts of racist things but was also raised with Angelique as basically her sister.

Bad things happen and the author is up front about them:

  • The main character narrowly escapes getting raped on more than one occasion, and other characters do get raped, off-screen.  Probably someone out there would argue that rape comes up in these books too often to be realistic, but I honestly don’t think so.  The main character is a lone young woman, with no one to protect her or take her side after the fact, in a lot of places full of unscrupulous people, in the early 1800s.
  • The main character has nightmares, gets depressed, and sometimes has PTSD-type recurring thoughts of bad things she’s seen.  This is perfectly reasonable for someone who grew up homeless and then found herself in the middle of a war, but how often do brave adventurous soldiers in books actually get depressed?  Not very often!

The main character is a complete rake and I personally find it heartwarming.  You definitely can’t be under any illusions that women are pure and unconcerned with sex in these books.  She falls in love and gets engaged in the first book, and goes on to flirt with or kiss five other young men that I can remember, all the while maintaing that she loves her fiance and is “trying to be good”.  (And no, I am not counting the times when she flirts with people to get them to help her, or as part of a disguise, or the times when she almost gets raped.  I mean five people who she genuinely likes and voluntarily makes out with.)  Yes, this is kind of bad behavior on her part even though her fiance forgives her, but I am so impressed that the author allows her to have this particular fault and also she reminds me of Sparkly that I don’t care.