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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

BELATED THANKS

A very belated Thank You to Brigid Alverson and Huff, for responding to my plea for readers to let me know they're out there. I was hoping to say something meaningful or funny about this, but I don't seem to have it in me right now.

I do have a review of an unlicensed manga nearly completed. And I have three by Kotobuki Shiriagari awaiting review, including Jacaranda, which received some attention recently when it was nominated for best album at the Angouleme Festival. (It didn't win but another manga did.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

A LONG RAMBLING POST INSPIRED BY THE NEW TIPTREE BIOGRAPHY

Recently I finished reading James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, and it deserves all the plaudits it's received. I was enthralled by the story Phillips tells, which is doubly surprising, since I was never a big Tiptree fan and most literary biographies I've read have bored me. But I found Alice Sheldon's life more interesting than I've ever found Tiptree's stories. More than that, I found Alice Sheldon's voice, as seen in the letters, diary entries, and occasional writings Phillips quotes, more interesting than Tiptree's voice as seen in "his" stories and letters: partly, I suppose, because Tiptree presented "himself" as a "man's man," and that type has never appealed to me.

I do have a couple of bones to pick with Phillips, though. The first is that her portrayal of women's situation in the 1950s is too one-sided. However benighted that era seems to us today, and whatever the amount of misogynistic sentiment floating around, there were many women of Sheldon's generation who were able to make productive and fulfilling use of their talents outside the home, and such women could find support as well as disapproval in the media of the time. And from what Phillips says, it wasn't Sheldon's gender that stopped her from pursuing an academic career once she'd gotten her Ph. D.

The second is Phillips's seeming lack of interest in the fact that Sheldon killed her husband. Old, ill, and depressed, on May 19, 1987 she shot her husband in the head while he was sleeping and then killed herself. Sheldon, who loved her husband very much, had tried to persuade him to agree to a suicide pact, but it's not clear that he ever agreed to it; and Phillips thinks that her husband, who was blind but healthy, did not wish to die. In any case, Sheldon didn't give him a chance to choose. When you think about it, it's pretty extraordinary. Her depression can excuse the murder to a certain extent (and my intent here is not to condemn her), but it doesn't explain it: most people who commit suicide out of depression don't kill someone else first. But Phillips is a lot more interested in Sheldon's depression than in the causes of her decision to kill her husband. Granted that sources may be lacking, Phillips is willing to theorize in other places. And while one might argue that the killing came long after her best stories had been written, and so is irrelevant to a literary biography, the fact that she could make this decision surely says something about her earlier life.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of a novelette by Tiptree, "Backward, Turn Backward," one of the last stories Sheldon wrote (a year before her suicide). The stories from this period are in general considered far from Tiptree's best: Phillips doesn't even mention this one in her text. When I read it many years ago, I thought it was sentimental, melodramatic crap. Rereading it now, it's still a bad story, but it has are some curious and disturbing similarities to Alice Sheldon's life.

The protagonist, Diane Fortnum, is a high school senior at a ritzy boarding school in the fairly near future (though the year isn't specified). She's beautiful, rich, and intends to marry super-rich; she's also, in the words of the story's main Good Guy, a "self-centered, materialistic, greedy, rude little shit." A technology has been developed, essentially allowing you to switch places temporarily with your future self, though when you return to the present you forget everything you saw or experienced in the future. Nor can you bring back any physical objects. ("In that case, what's the point?" you may be wondering. Apparently, it's to give you older, future self one last experience of being young.) Diane's school offers this technology to its senior class as one of its perks.

Each student can pick how far ahead (s)he wants to jump, and Diane chooses fifty-five years. When she gets there, she's horrified to find that she's married to the class nerd (who, coincidentally, also chose to jump ahead fifty-five years). Worse yet, they're middle-class. Eventually, hidden in a drawer, she discovers a letter to her from her future self explaining how she ended up here, along with a handgun.

Shortly after she (the first Diane) returned to the present, a catastrophic depression hit, and her family was completely wiped out. With no money and no skills, she soon found herself unemployed. On her first evening of unemployment, she met a handsome older man named Nikko, who made love to her and "in a short time he had [her] hypnotized, totally sexualized." Nikko turned out to be a pimp, who made her into a prostitute and sold her to another pimp, who beat her. She spent three years working the streets, diseased and looking for a way to kill herself. Finally Don, the aforementioned class nerd and Good Guy, ran into her, took her home and cleaned her up. And after a while they fell in love and eventually got married.

Though Diane (the first one) hates the idea of being married to Don, they sleep in the same bed for some reason. One night they make love, and Don proves, improbably, to be an expert lover who makes her first time pleasurable. (She's been saving herself for her anticipated super-rich husband.) She falls in love with him; but despite this, and despite knowing that in the future they will be happily married, she still can't endure the prospect of a "second-rate life," as she thinks a middle-class existence is. She decides to kill herself with the handgun her future self left for her (which will cause her to be dead in her own time, too), but to do it while they are traveling back to their own time, so as not to hurt Don. But as they are traveling back, before she is able to kill herself, her former "cold shallow schoolgirl" personality comes back, and she loses her memory of loving Don, except to associate him with her future second-rateness. Instead of shooting herself, she shoots the sleeping Don. So Don is dead in the present as well, and everything happens as in the future Diane's letter, except Don is not there to save her from the streets. Instead, shortly after Don would have saved her, she is burned to death (and perhaps raped) by three kids.

Unfortunately, this doesn't improve in the execution. For example, Don is described as having eyes that are "almost too long-lashed, compassionate, sparkling for a man"; and the description of his and Diane's lovemaking wouldn't be out of place in a steamy romance novel. My interest in the story is exclusively in what it says about Sheldon. And though in its particulars Diane's life doesn't resemble Sheldon's, the shapes of the two lives (so to speak) have some disturbing similarities. Like Diane, Sheldon came from a wealthy family that lost much of its wealth in the Depression, although thanks to her mother the Sheldons retained a comfortable standard of living. Sheldon's first husband, like Diane's fiance (who drops her when her family is wiped out) was came from a much richer family than the Sheldons had ever been: his stepfather was a heir to the International Harvester fortune. Sheldon was never a prostitute, but her first marriage was an "open" one, and she once visited a brothel and "play[ed] whore." (One difference between Sheldon and Diane's lives was that, unlike Nikko and Don, both of Sheldon's husbands were lousy lovers.) And of course, there's the husband-killing thing. Note that Diane first decides to kill herself, but then kills her (future) husband, whereas Sheldon did both.

Of course, it could be that Sheldon simply drew on bits of her life to give her protagonist a background. It's even possible that she didn't notice the resemblance between herself and Diane. But for what it's worth, my impression was that something about the story was so personal for her that she couldn't get the distance needed to turn it into art. The most peculiar thing about the story is that Diane knows that she will spend most of her life by the side of the man she loves, and will be happy, but still wants to prevent this life from happening by killing herself. Sheldon doesn't make this convincing in Diane (the story makes clear that it is not the few years of hell before Don which Diane can't stand the thought of, but the many years with Don); but is it possible that she herself had come to feel that her life was "second-rate" and would have been better not lived? Obviously, this is pure speculation on my part. But passages like

"What stabs her in the gut is ... the absolute knowledge that she is excluded. That there are people she can never meet, let alone have as friends; places into which she can never enter. Excluded. Condemned to copies, to second-best. Not regarded as fully human. Not wanted, by people no better, in absolute terms, than herself. To be on the outside, absolutely, irrevocably, forever. That's what's intolerable."

and

"she begins to notice how the word 'pleasant' is coming to infest her thoughts.The home is pleasant, the life is pleasant. --Damn pleasantness! 'Pleasantness' is another word for mediocrity, she thinks savagely, and an old saying comes to her: The good is the enemy of the best."

seem too heartfelt to be pure invention.

Rereading these passages again, particularly the first, a thought strikes me: could it be the masculine world that Sheldon felt excluded from, an exclusion that caused her to see her life as a woman as mediocre? Certainly there's evidence to support this in Phillips' book.

Well, that's probably enough speculation for now. There are interesting comparisons to be made between this story and an earlier and much better story of Tiptree's, "Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket," but I haven't quite got a handle on them yet, so they'll have to wait for another post (if I ever get around to it).

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Brigid Alverson's response to my previous post reminded me to finally add two blogs to my sidebar that I've been meaning to for a long time. Brigid's blog MangaBlog collects links about manga from hither and yon (and there are a lot), interspersed with occasional reviews and interviews. It's the place to go to keep up with manga news in the U.S. (primarily) and with the manga blogosphere.

The Comics Curmudgeon makes fun of bad comic strips on a daily basis, with particular attention paid to the few remaining continuity strips. Sure, it's shooting fish in a barrel, but it's also very funny.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

A QUESTION FOR MY READERS

This is National De-Lurking Week (via Acephalous), which provides me with a pretext to ask you a question I've been considering asking for a while: Who are you? I know the names of a few regular readers, mainly because they've linked to posts of mine, but there must be more (mustn't there?). And while sitemeter tells me the number of people who view my blog at my site, most of whom have been brought here by various searches, I have no idea how many people subscribe to feeds of my blog.

So, if you are a regular reader, or even if you're just visiting and feel like it, please let me know, either in comments to this post or by email. And of course, if you want to tell me what you think of my blog, that'd be even better.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

MANGA UPDATE: THE WALLFLOWER VOL. 10

When I reviewed the first three volumes of The Wallflower for The Comics Journal, I liked them, but wondered how long Hayakawa could keep up the joke. Judging by this volume, the answer seems to be "for fewer than ten volumes." Of the four stories in here, only the first one is funny. The second and fourth are pretty pointless; and I have zero interest in Ranmaru's love life, which the third story is about. Volumes 8 and 9 were pretty blah too: in fact, none of the the stories in them were as good as the first story in vol. 10. Unless a future volume looks really good, this will be the last volume I buy. (Incidentally, the cover of vol. 10 is the most boring cover I've ever seen on a manga, as far as I can recall.)

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Friday, January 05, 2007

WEIRD BOOK CORNER: AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ART OF FUNERARY VIOLIN BY ROHAN KRIWACZEK

While browsing in a bookstore, I noticed An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin on the classical music shelves. The title intrigued me for two reasons. First, you rarely see books entitled "an incomplete history" of anything. Second, while I had never heard of "the art of funerary violin," the idea of a history of it seemed like it might be eccentric enough to be interesting. The back cover (actually, a paper band wrapped around this cover) explained that "funerary violin" was solo violin music played in Protestant funerals, and went on: "Despite its enormous influence on classical music generally and on the Romantic Movement in particular, this music has almost entirely vanished. In a series of 'funerary purges', the violinists were driven into silence or clandestine activity. This is a music that ... has haunted Europe's collective unconscious for more than a century." Well, that was certainly intriguing; and the back cover also had a highly favorable quote from The Liberal (which I never heard of, but presumed was one of those respectable English magazines like the New Statesman). Paging through the book, it appeared to be an old-fashioned scholarly monograph. And while the book itself seemed rather dry, consisting mainly of a series of biographies of notable figures in the H. o. t. A. of F. V., the story was intriguing enough that I added the book to my long list of books to take out of the library someday.

And then I had second thoughts. Wasn't the story, perhaps, a little too good to be true? And something didn't fit: the funerary violin was played mainly in Protestant countries, but while paging through the book I'd noticed that Kriwaczek attributed its suppression to the Vatican. Moreover, I'd majored in music as an undergraduate and taken courses in music history, yet had never heard of any of the "major" composers for funerary violin discussed in the book. This didn't mean much: there are thousands of composers I've never heard of, some of whom are undoubtedly "major" in their specialized fields. Still, it wasn't reassuring. On the other hand, if it was a hoax, it was a very elaborate and painstaking one (for instance, there are 68 authentic-looking illustrations and 43 pages of scores), and I didn't see any obvious giveaways.

Conveniently, there was a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Music on the shelf above. I looked up some of the major figures in the Incomplete History, but found none of them. Having failed to settle the issue in that way, I turned back to the book. I found the answer to how the Vatican suppressed the art of funerary violin: by sending their agents to destroy all records and artifacts pertaining to it, as well as to attack the violinists themselves. Now I was really suspicious: this sounded more like The Da Vinci Code than real life. I then noticed the book's epilogue, entitled "A Response from the Vatican." This proved to contain two rather preposterous letters supposedly written by the Vatican to Kriwaczek in response to his "research," followed by Kriwaczek's suggestion that his own life was in danger. Now my money was on a hoax.

When I got home, I immediately got on the internet, where a Google search quickly revealed that sure enough, the whole thing was a hoax, as Kriwaczek has admitted. (The latter link also reproduces the book's foreword.) The "art of funerary violin" as described by Kriwaczek never existed. Nor did the Guild of Funerary Violinists, which Kriwaczek is supposedly the Acting President of and whose archives were supposedly his main source for the book. Nor did any of the composers for funerary violin Kriwaczek discusses. And when I actually read the book, there were various absurdities scattered throughout, such as "funerary duels," in which two violinists would play alternately at the same funeral, with the winner being the one who made the mourners cry more (though I don't know if I would have noticed these absurdities as such if I hadn't known, or at least suspected, that the book was a hoax).

My Google search didn't turn up anyone (except perhaps for the book's publisher) who was taken in, perhaps because the hoax was exposed before the book was published. (A few people wrote as if they believed in it, but were clearly just playing along.) But in the bookstores where I've seen it stocked, as well as in my local public library, the book is placed with genuine works of music history, so some people may come away thinking that the "art of funerary violin" is real. And I have a horrible vision of some poor graduate student believing the book is authentic (perhaps not having read it as a whole, but just having cherry-picked passages relevant to her work, as graduate students do) and using it as a source for her dissertation.

Kriwaczek has set up a website for the "Guild of
Funerary Violinists." Here you can both read about the Guild and buy CDs of "historic" and "modern" recordings of "surviving" compositions for funerary violin, and even hear brief excerpts online. There's also a page of parodic "links," all created by Kriwaczek. In particular, check out the program of the GFVA (Guild of Funerary Violinists America) 2007 Convention and Exposition, which is both funny and deadly accurate.

Tracing a link from the Guild's website, I discovered another bogus institution invented by Kriwaczek, the Rohan Theatre. This one's fictionality is more obvious, as it is said, among other things, to have staged the famous riot at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. There are also CDs available, along with online excerpts from them (which sound a bit Tom Waits-ish), by the "Rohan Theatre Band," whose supposed history is similarly improbable.

There's a brief but interesting discussion of the affair here.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

BOOK CORNER: HOGFATHER

I've never been a big fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. I read the second and third books in the series when they first came out and thought they were funny. But it's the later books in the series that everyone raves about, and the few of those that I've read didn't appeal to me much. People keep raving about Pratchett, though, so when I saw a couple of people single out Hogfather as particularly good, I decided to check it out of the library and read it.

If you've been reading this blog for a long time, you can probably guess where this is going. To be sure, Hogfather starts out with a bang, as the head of the Assassin's Guild accepts a commission to kill Santa Claus (named "Hogfather," but basically Santa). And there are a lot of funny bits, mainly arising from Death's decision to take Santa's place on Christmas Eve -- er, Hogfather's place on Hogswatchnight. But in the end, it all collapses into didacticism, and shopworn didacticism at that. We need myths in order to be fully human: heavy, man, heavy. For children, the world is actually a scary place: who'd'a thunk it?

And another thing: I keep hearing about what a rich world Pratchett has created. Well, it's easy to "create" a rich world if you fill it up with details from the real world. For instance, Discworld has not only its own Santa Claus, but department stores and department-store Santas. And Hogswatch in Ankh-Morpork is apparently celebrated in just the same way the Christmas is celebrated in present-day England. When you just look at what Pratchett has himself created, Discworld in Hogfather isn't particularly rich: no more so than you'd expect from a fantasy series that has been going on for as long as Discworld has. (And I realize that Hogfather is just one book, but if Discworld as a whole is so rich, then some of that richness ought to be evident even in a single book.)

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