Ridiculously meta fanfiction: Barsetshire and Madame Koska

In the last few weeks in my way of consuming books relentlessly when I can’t sleep and am feeling stressed, I’ve been reading all possible Angela Thirkell books that I could find in e-book format. They’re a ridiculous series written and set after World War I in England in Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire. The class politics are terrible and interesting and they’re a bit like reading a more complex Agatha Christie novel without the mystery solving. It’s always interesting to see how a novelist treats writing about the same group of people over time – these books would be perfect for the long intersecting arcs of a long-running tv series.

I finally hit the book “Peace Breaks Out” and felt surfeited of fancy-ass people with vaguely Trollopean names bemoaning the nastiness of their rationed food and the fact that sometimes they have to clean up after themselves. Definitely found myself muttering and cussing them all out, and hating the obvious arcs of the mawkish love stories past a certain point.

But then in the suggested next books, I noticed some mystery books starring Madame Koska – who was the detective in the books written by a fictional novelist, one of the nicest characters in Thirkell’s series, Laura Morland. Mrs. Morland writes trashy detective novels to support herself and her four sons and their household (ie their servants). It’s a running joke how while she is self-deprecating, everyone she meets gushes about how much they love Madame Koska’s exciting world of fashion design.

Perfect…. completely meta-trashy…. the meta has gone 2 levels deep as Thirkell was more or less writing Trollope fanfiction and then the Koska author is writing fanfic of the fanfic. I have just started Madame Koska and the Imperial Brooch – it’s extremely fun and silly.

Sideways review of "In Old Narragansett: Romances and Realities"

Read an interesting book about Narragansett. Through the ugly casual racism you can see some interesting stuff. I looked up a lot of details and learned a little about the history of Black Governors in New England and their elections. Written in 1898 with stories about people who lived 100 or so years before, another Alice Morse Earle book. And now for a random history walk through the interwebs!!!

I did find census records of some of the people mentioned including Cuddymonk, who is described as mixed Narragansett and Black (in the 1790 census as Cuddy Monk with 5 in his household; his wife Rosann is mentioned in the book but the census only lists heads of households). I looked him up since he had a distinctive name.

Anyway, the book has a bunch of stories from what is now Bonnet Shores (then Boston Neck) including a mention of the ridge where the Tower is built (The Tower is named after “Unfortunate Hannah” Robinson). (I know the area from (partly) growing up there, and the Tower was and is a really cool landmark.) In Earle’s story, Hannah is an abandoned, sickly, dying young girl returning home to reconcile with her stern, cruel father after eloping with a French dancing-master. In actual life, she had 9 children with him in Providence before she returned to her parents’ house, which kind of messes up the touching fable of her almost innocent girlhood!

Unfortunate Hannah Robinson’s dad was a rich slave-owning plantation owner in Boston Neck, who bought a woman he called Abigail. The local story as told by Earle (I can’t find any other source) is that she was a queen in Africa, and Robinson freed her so she could go back there and find her son and … bring him back to Rhode Island? OK, seems unlikely! Her son Prince Robinson became one of the Black Governors of the area. The Prince Robinson in the census in the 1800s who was a stonemason may be him or may be his son. I feel sure a bit of real research could tell. There was also a woman named Tuggie Bannock who was said to be Abigail’s daughter and who was a witch. I couldn’t find her in the census. Earle makes her sound ridiculous, which is very annoying.

As I was looking through the census I noticed the Champlins and Hazards were also slave owning plantation owners (You will recognize the names if you are from there). And also on the same page as Cuddymonk: a white governor of Rhode Island listed as Gov. Samuel Potter.

My interest is in adding dimension to the people mocked in racist fables and replacing the caricatures with something more respectful. For example the way that (what’s her name) re-wrote Sojourner Truth’s famous speech in southern plantation dialect when she did not talk that way in her life. Alice Morse Earle does the same thing to her “characters”. I think it is part of undoing white supremacy to make our histories and geography more ‘true’ and more known. Now what I mean by that could fill a book. Moving right along…..

It looked also, in my casual reading, like the Hazards and Robinsons intermarried a bunch and one of that family at least became an abolitionist and did some work to gain freedom for a guy from his town who was detained in the south assumed to be escaped slave and this led to around 100 people there getting out of “detention” ie either jail or slavery. His textile business, not unrelatedly, had to switch from cotton to wool consuming and producing since the Southerners wouldn’t deal with him anymore.

Basically over that 150 years or so, the rich white people intermarried and owned all the land, and the Narragansett and Niantic and Black people intermarried and didn’t. I notice it didn’t seem to occur to Rowland Hazard to give the land back to the still extant Narragansett people as a way of settling up.

Another Hazard that Earle refers to: Caroline Hazard who wrote essays, poetry, and biographies and who was the President of Wellesley College for 10 years. I might look for her books in the Internet Archive. Of course Earle casually mentions her as “Miss Hazard” and her incredibly famous writing. Perhaps they were friends.

It is sad that I am at least happy that Morse Earle includes people of color which leaves some clues and tiny bits of truth along with the garbage racist caricatures. Other books do much worse — for example a multi-volume set “The Early History of Narragansett” has hundreds of pages of detail of every (white) family in the area for a couple of hundred years and all their names including details from their wills but never mentions that they are slave owners leaving human beings to their children in their wills. The Black and Narragansett & Niantic people are just left out of the Early (White Supremacist) history completely. You have to work to do that kind of disappearing.

Another example: In the Narragansett Historical Society’s short description of the area’s overall history, there is no mention of the history of slavery, of black residents over the years, or of the ongoing history of the Narragansett tribe’s people.

Here is another interesting collection of info from 1700s and early 1800s on people of color in Rhode Island mentioned in letters and manuscripts: http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/PeopleofColorweb.htm

In case you were wondering about Bonnet Shores, it was mostly Wesquage Farm and Bonnet Point before the mid 19th century, thought to be called that because the shape of the Point looked a bit like the bonnet of a ship’s jib (a small sail at the bottom of the jib).

bonnet point aerial view

OK…. sometimes this is what I do with my evenings… to relax…..

Plowing through heaps of books

Braindump of some of the books I’ve read lately, or at least, since my last post about books. Lots of science fiction and fantasy here as usual with forays into history, science, and “literary fiction” though for me to go near that without barfing it had better be great.

* The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. I loved this! So beautiful! Do that thing with language! Break my heart! And with intense, queer as hell soldierly camaraderie. Tantalizing backstory (those ancestor aliens/gods…) I didn’t want this book to end!

sorcerer-of-wildeeps.jpg

* My Brilliant Friend, and the others in this series of 4 books by Elena Ferrante. Oh, my god! Brilliant and awful and amazing! I was shattered into pieces and had to rebuild myself and my own politics. By the last book (when they are old) I realized I could only barely grasp the depth/breadth of things because I am not old enough yet. (If you are the sort of person who has talked about realizing you have to be 30ish to get the idea of Middlemarch, and you are now older than 30ish, please go for these books immediately!!!) I need more people to read into book 4 so I can discuss it deeply. I have feelings here people. And those feelings can be summed up like, “Did she really — omg — she did! No. But yes. NOOOOO” You will not stop having epiphanies here. Deeply fucked up in the best way. You know how you realize that over the ages every human society has intoxicants, and that we need them to get through the heinous pain of life unless we are some kind of mystical saint (which is its own sort of intoxicant anyway)? It is because things are truly as fucked up and confusing as these novels represent them !!!!! There is no way to avoid it if you have half an eye for complexity.

* All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Fabulous! Nerdy guy Laurence who builds time machines and AIs who joins Not-Elon-Musk futurist geek team, and his childhood sort-of-friend Patricia who talks to animals and goes to wizarding school, meet again as adults in San Francisco and try to prevent the impending magico-technological apocalypse. I love their friendship with each other and how they develop their own groups of weird talented chosen family. Playful, intense, and cool! I also really like how all the bits of science fiction and fantasy you would expect or take for granted are elided. Instead of rehashing the tropes of magic school or whatever, Charlie takes SFF assumptions and builds something weird and new over all the things that don’t have to be said, like a lacy bridge of fanciful awesomeness.

(Note, I think I suggested the connection with Conference of the Birds. But I can’t actually remember if I did. Seems likely! And I liked how that idea came back at the ending)

* Woman with a Blue Pencil: A Novel by Gordon Mcalpine. Epistolary novel where a young Japanese-American man from the West Coast sends chapters of his detective novel manuscript to an editor in NYC. His detective starts off as a Japanese American professor but then the bombing of Pearl Harbor happens and the editor demands a more palatable hero, who the author creates in palpable anger and grief as he and his family are imprisoned in an internment camp. The original detective’s story continues in parallel as he is written out of the acceptable publishable story. It is a disturbing science fictiony metaphysical novel. Interesting, tightly written and structured book, really elegant. I was in awe of the clever structure.

* Black Wolves by Kate Elliott. This is a new series in the same world (a few years on) as the Crossroads series, which I adore, and had to go back and re-read once I read Black Wolves! (They reward close re-reading!) If you feel that epic fantasy like say, Songs of Fire & Ice could just be better.. and less of a rehash of the genre… and like, do more interesting things with gender dynamics…. Read Crossroads, and this new series! So good! Also kind of a mindfuck and a criticism of not just the genre but why we come to the genre and what we want from it… (I like that a lot.)

* Crystal Society, by Max Harms. I got really excited about this because it is weird. If you read a lot of SF and you want to explore some ideas, here are some good ones! This is the story of AI’s subroutines and their very rational market internal to their own brain, and I really wanted to like the AI in its parts and together as a whole, and am rooting for it against the scientists who made it and who worry that it will be a sociopathic entity and then it it is both likeable and a sociopath and I was very weirded out! Fun exploration which reminded me a little bit of the weirdness of the web novel “Ra” but a lot more competent at making a human-enjoyable plot.

* The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne. Fabulous!!!!! I will never forget the journey across the horrible ocean road!

* City of Stairs and City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett. Excellent fantasy series. Sorry to be brief, there are lots of reviews, neat worldbuilding. Heroic women!

* The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. Another great fantasy book about empire and (de)colonization, with a great heroine, by a dude, that doesn’t feel like it was written by a dude, in a good way.

* South Texas Experience: Love Letters by Noemi Martinez. good book, good poems, delicate but solid, keep an eye on Hermana Resist Press!

* A bunch of books by Jessica Day George (Castle Glower series). A young princess who is soul-bonded with her family’s castle, which moves pieces of itself and builds new rooms every Tuesday. Griffins, magic, moving between worlds and the sort of AI-like castle. Very sweet. Also, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, an enjoyable version of Beauty and the Beast.

* Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen. Cowgirl/ranch hand Nettie Lonesome is basically a Slayer. But more interesting. I enjoyed this – A Western with an excellent punch.

* The Antagonists (books 1 and 2), a series about a wheelchair-using superheroine (superantiheroine?). Burgandi Rakoska tells an engaging, satisfying story! Writing is a little amateurish so don’t go for it if that bothers you (I think it is charming). The drama is awesome and the way that the heroine uses her crip powers and insight, SO GOOD. In book 2 they go to hang out with King Arthur, who as you can imagine, is an asshole and a half. One of the superhero trials they have to undergo is enduring a chamber of pain. Hahahah! Yay! Now there is something I would have a superpower in. (King Arthur runs out screaming in like 30 seconds.) I am looking forward to Rakoska’s next series about kids in a paranormal school that sounds like it will be much more infused with disability politics & experience than, say, X-men.

* Nearly all the Vorkosigan books (re-read) in order by the timeline of the series (About 12 novels)

* All the Expanse books by “James A. Corey”. Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abbadon’s Gate, and Cibola Burn. I guess there will be more. And I will probably read them because I do love space opera and the women characters don’t 100% suck. Rant ahead: I could not help but notice the heavy reliance on space hookers for atmosphere to give a gritty frontier/port feeling. There are seriously space brothels in every chapter and it is sort of like the annoying feeling when every TV show or movie has to have a scene in a strip club. Not even for fanservice but to signify something … How is everything “equal” and there’s lots of politicians and engineers and pilots and military robot exoskeleton wearers who are women but somehow 90% of the women in space are hookers anyway? Eh!!! I got so annoyed I started highlighting all the whorey bits. Good news, they stopped relying on that so much in the later books. But something is always so wrong with women’s agency in these books. I was very annoyed no matter the good efforts and halfway decent characters! Still I ate up these books like candy and also watched the TV show. To assuage my feelings I started writing a poem from the point of view of the very interesting, intelligent, ambitious, activist minded, technologically capable space hookers, who are FRIENDS.

* Alastair Reynolds, Poseidon’s Children trilogy. I love Reynolds’s books a lot but loved these less than usual. Kind of boring. I got very annoyed with everyone in this one family from Tanzania, spaceships, coldsleep, various world governments, and most of all, elephants. What is with being super obsessed with your great great great great etc. grandmother who you would barely share any genetic material with anyway, no matter how famous and great she was, and no one is really that important (I am allergic to Great Person theories of history) Endless rehashing of moral qualms. Please kill that million people for the greater good, or don’t. But don’t tell me how you’re thinking about it, then have the character tell someone else they’re thinking about it, then have them tell a third person all about it, as if the reader hasn’t heard it already, and then have someone else hold the first person to task for not telling them, and then finally do the morally questionable thing or don’t…. Whatever, JFDI!!! Still, good and with some juicy ideas like the uplifted elephants, the artilects, the creepy giant whale woman, all the cool tech, the Evolving robots who take over Mars, but could have been compressed severely. Also it struck me weirdly that someone would constantly be thinking “Ah…. AFRICA…” You are from a specific place, right? (Which happens to be the bit with Kilimanjaro and elephants and dramatic sunsets in a sort of timeless safari park except Kilimanjaro has a railgun coming out at the top.) Would you describe your feelings of longing as being about an entire continent, whether you’re under the ocean, or on Mars, or in some star system? Do people do this? I have never thought romantically about the entire continent of North America; am I weird? Well, look, anyway, House of Suns is still one of the best SF books ever and you should buy it and read it. The Prefect was also unusually excellent and sparky with newness.

* Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. More with generation ships and checking out the nearest planet around another star. Lots of politics of how we are to govern the generation ship and its environmental and resource difficulties and then rather like in that one Helen M. Hoover book you realize things may not be working out quite right. Honk if you like process.

* Several trashy feminist paranormal romance novels by Zoe Chant, about curvy paramedics who are friends with each other and all end up dating some sexy, feminist, shape shifting ex-Navy Seal were-bodyguards of different animal backgrounds, who respect them for their amazing skills. Much hurt/comfort is to be had. Truly worth a read especially if you get all the way to the hilarious tongue in cheek one about the sexy were-meerkat Hollywood reporter/detective. OK they are all tongue in cheek but… Meerkat was over the top silly. Start with the bear one; I laughed and laughed when the bear bodyguard has green and brown furniture to remind him of the forest, and cooks a great middle of the night breakfast for his curvy paramedic client!

* Several of the lesser known and not so popular novels by Anthony Trollope because I was in the mood but have read the Palliser and Warden novels too many times already. Ralph the Heir (maddening!) Mr. Scarborough’s Family, and I can’t remember the others and can’t be bothered to go back and look as they were dual editions. I like Trollope a lot.

* To Hold the Bridge. Really brilliant short stories by Garth Nix. I acknowledge the weird brilliance of the Sabriel books (necromancer, boarding school, demon cat, weird talents) while still being a little annoyed by them without being able to explain why. The short stories really grew on me. I went back to read all the Sabriel books and liked them better the 2nd time around.

* The Strange Crimes of Little Africa by Chesya Burke. Detective novel set in Harlem in the 20s. Our heroine Jaz Idawell (hehehehe) is BFFs with Zora Neale Hurston and they solve murder mysteries! What more is there to say. I enjoyed this! I had read Burke’s book of short stories, Let’s Play White, and enjoyed it some years ago; I’ll definitely read whatever else she writes when comes out in book form!

* A lot of books by Kazuo Ishiguro, I think all the books. I liked the first one I hit, Never Let Me Go, and resolved to read everything by Ishiguro. Then they started on the whole to annoy me and feel unsatisfying. Good but, not all that.

* The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. I read this, because it had good reviews, but honest to god I can’t remember any of it.

* Bassel: Behind the Screens of the Syrian Resistance.

* The Biography of a Grizzly. What it says on the tin.

* Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle (and several others, but they got boring) Historical fiction.

* The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Good and naturally super horrible and sad too.

* All the Dance to the Music of Time books again. (last fall) Still good.

* Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation in Crete. I liked Fermor’s story of walking across Europe in the 30s but by the time he wrote this he just seemed creepy.

* Some fairly terrible jane austen pastiches by Carrie Bebris but I read them all anyway because I was sick

* Some much, much better, fabulous Jane Austen homages/continuations, by Sherwood Smith, who is great and brilliant. If you have a mood where you want to re-read Mansfield Park, do it! And then read Jane Austen After. Two alternate endings to Mansfield Park! Tie-ins to her other novels!

* There are more books, but I would have to go poke through my past orders since I deleted lots off my Kindle already.

If you have book recs for me, please let me know! I need a steady stream of fuel to burn here because of general insomnia and reading very quickly.

Noticing women mentioning women

I started reading Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes with Wikipedia in the other hand to get different perspectives on all the people Ansary mentions and the stories he tells about the history of Islam and various political figures. At some point this evening I got up to the Moghul Empire and while looking up Babur, felt very excited that his diary is famous. I love diaries and memoirs. While you can get a lot from an overview of history, it’s even better to go straight to some original texts. Well, to translations of them. There were a few versions listed online and on Amazon. I was hoping for a recent version for Kindle that would have decent footnotes and that might have left in any racy bits about crushing out on youths in the marketplace. But the only kindle version was from the turn of the last century. Translator Annette S. Beveridge. I bought it and interrupted my reading of Ansary to dive into the textual mind of Babur.

But first there is a 400 page history of Babur by Beveridge. She opens with a description of how Babur learned everything important from his mother Qut-luq-nigar who was well educated and accomplished. And from his grandmother Aisan-daulat and his older sister Khan-zada. About Khan-zada, Annette says tantalizingly, “Her life-story tempts, but is too long to tell; her girlish promise is seen fulfilled in Gul-badan’s pages.” As you can imagine, I immediately interrupt my reading of Beveridge’s introductory explanations of the important women in Babur’s life to look up all of them, Gul-badan, and Beveridge herself, promising myself that if Beveridge doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet, she will soon.

She did have one and I scurried around adding some corrections to it (it left out that she translated the Baburnama… and she is mentioned in her husband’s article but incorrectly as a translator of Hindu rather than of Persian and Turki) and link-ifying her name elsewhere to point to her article. It turns out she also translated Gulbadan, Babur’s daughter and Akbar the great’s aunt, who wrote the biography of her brother Humayun (the Humayunama) including some of her own and her other relative’s histories.

gulbadan

From Annette’s gloriously boring 400 page preface to her translation of the Baburnama she is revealed as being extremely scholarly, at least it sounds like it! She compares different versions of the Baburnama and is very excited about the Haidarabad Codex.

I may interrupt this book and this blog post now to go read her translation of Gulbadan since in my mind this is basically a 16th century Princess Diary (even if she is writing about her brother).

If you know my interests in history and literature you’ll laugh, because this is so very right up my alley, it’s like catnip for me. (i.e. my projects like Building a Digital Feminary, or my anthology of translations of work by women poets) It will be very interesting to read Gulbadan’s thoughts and Annette’s layers of added meaning as she was a champion of women’s education and, well, at least their right to education (if not to suffrage) as she campaigned to found a women’s college, Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya (School for Hindu Women), later Banga Mahila Vidyalaya. I have no doubt there were hideous colonialist aspects to this, but I also liked reading about her struggles against sexist dudes who wanted to limit women’s education. What I mean though is that whatever mythos she was looking to construct of the elite womanhood of empire, that will likely be revealed in her framing of the Moghul royal women as educated, literary, and “civilizing” influences on the men of the ruling class.

Ansary’s history of the world centered on the Islamic world will be enhanced several layers more deeply by my following these threads of the shadows of the women who by the time it is hundreds of years later and halfway around the world in dusty books, are often left to unnamed roles or relegated to the footnotes. How nice it is to see their names, imagine their lives, and read their translated words. Even when we don’t know their names we know they were there and can work to add them into the dimensions of our mental landscape of history. For me, it is something like an absolute faith or belief — “you were there” and to read some writing like this is deeply validating. (for my own mythos, you might notice, which may be something like, “women can, and do, find each other’s work and make some kind of connection, and pay attention to each other, despite thousands of years of oppression which leads women to do otherwise, across time, cultures, and languages” so that even if I am embedded in the problems of imperialism and translation some form of resistance is there in the process or the result).

Meanwhle, yesterday was Ada’s birthday party, which we all worked a lot to make happen and make it interesting. It was a sort of role playing puzzle game or scavenger hunt in Glen Canyon park. The two teams of teenagers and children ran around the park for hours, guided by Ada and Milo, finding clues, translating the runes and unscrambling the words to give me and Danny (the guardian stone dragons of the hidden amulet) a passphrase. Then, a (confused and confusing, but great) battle between the two teams and the rebels, which was a combat card game a bit like Magic the Gathering, invented and designed by Ada and Milo and drawn by Ada. Puzzles by me, booklet and team badges designed by my sister Laura.

dragonthorne_card_game

Today the children have been gaming and reading the monster manual all day, and they cooked chocolate chip pancakes for themselves and brought breakfast in bed to Danny, on a tray nicely set up with a bud vase with flowers from the garden. I think Milo may have been the cook and Ada the tray-fixer and flower-picker.

This, on the one morning I sneaked out to the cafe to translate. I am about 2/3 of the way through my raw rough draft of Carmen Berenguer‘s new book Mi Lai which should be published later this year or early next year by Cardboard House Press. It is an exciting book and I’ll have more to say about it soon.

Making a puzzle scavenger hunt

I spent most of today working on the map and puzzles for A.’s birthday party in the park. My sister is drawing kick ass badges for the two teams, the Dragonthorne and Bloodsphinx clans, which will go onto the little booklet with map and runes and the doggerel that contains the hints. Her designs are so cool that I want to also print temporary tattoos for the clans.

I re-read the entire Vorkosigan series last week (or so) and now am re-reading Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds so that I can catch up on this series which is now a trilogy, Poseidon’s Children.

Also up soon on my reading list is Crystal Society by Max Harms, which sounds very amusing!

My mom is visiting and we went to spend an afternoon at Land’s End and Ocean Beach. Perfect day for it!

liz-purple-sunglasses

Danny and I also went out and had a drink at Virgil’s Sea Room where I was also able to groove out to a band next door at El Rio (great bar but too crowded for me to get around well in my scooter) playing Cuarto de Tula. We went over to Ruben’s cupcake house where he fed us thin mints or something and made us watch horrible videos like Becky and Joe’s Creativity Song and the fucking brilliant ad for Cloaxia. Make yours a bird hole!

I am just over halfway through my first draft of translating Mi Lai by Carmen Berenguer. I’m getting to the poems about San Francisco and a long one about being on an airplane (a theme I particularly love).

Meanwhile, I am reading Altazor by Vicente Huidobro in the original and with Eliot Weinberger’s translation. I learned a lot reading his translations of Octavio Paz in the 80s and it is cool to see how he approached Huidobro. Of course I love the end bits where language flies free. Nothing is more fun to translate than the untranslatable!!

Too Many Books

Today I have been enjoying “So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance” by Gabriel Zaid, a tiny and beautifully typeset book about books.

“Books are published at such a rapid rate that they make us exponentially more ignorant. If a person read a book a day, he would be neglecting to read four thousand others, published the same day. In other words, the books he didn’t read would pile up four thousand times faster than the books he did read, and his ignorance would grow four thousand times faster than his knowledge.”

Playful bullshit, still better than what usually passes for an essay! I’m so pleased.

My reading list lately:

* Beverly Cleary’s early autobiography. (Good!)
* The Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, which had a “preface” which was really another entire (great) book, by Arundhati Roy. I loved her preface so much.
* Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, a tantalizingly fabulous science fiction novella
* The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems by the entirely adorable Henry Petroski (Don’t start here with him, start with The Evolution of Useful Things if you don’t want to drill 900 pages into pencils or bookshelves; otherwise, if you are hard core, read the Pencil book or the book on Bookshelves) I really can’t gush enough about his books but you have to be that kind of person who will read a 900 age book about the design of pencils through history and make everyone around you listen to you talk about it.
* Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin; geologist magicians and terrible catastrophe, well worth a read, violent and intense so be warned. Mindblowingly awesome.
* Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. Kind of Hunger Gamesy but not so pandering and silly. Fun. Fight against patriarchy by your forbidden engagement in weird, dangerous, ritual, extreme sport! Weird death magic!
* Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho; magic in alternate London, fluffy and fun (but not embarrassingly bad like Carriger)
* All 5 of the Gail Carriger Soulless series (Ridiculous fluff; book 4 was the best)
* The Dandelion Cottage books, a girls’ series from 1905 (So racist and classist, and so interesting of a package)
* Ancillary Mercy, which grows on me though it’s not what I thought it would be. I have analysis! It is not a repeat of books 1 or 2 in the series. It
* The Maker’s Mask books by Ankaret Wells (SF lost colony of manners, with giant raptors and replicators)
* Nigerians in Space, which was excellent and also not what I thought it would be (in much the same ways as it wasn’t what the characters thought it would be)
* The entire Steerswoman series because I thought there were bits where Ankaret Wells paid homage and then I just wanted it for comfort value. It holds up to re-reading beautifully. If you like adventuring scientist librarian archivists with swords (and satellites)…. read this.
* Burmese Days by George Orwell. You can just keep reading more George Orwell infinitely over your lifespan, and keep concluding about what an asshole he is, but kind of an interesting angsty asshole. But this book is not to be bothered with unless you have just read all of Amitav Ghosh’s books, which I just did a couple of months ago, in which case, go for it
* The Sand and Beacon books by Hugh Howey, which are like the rest of his books,
* Dragon’s Eye by Joel Champetier (translated to English) A good interstellar spy novel.
* The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (I read her bio of her uncles and loved it, then was scared to read her fiction in case it didn’t live up; I like Novalis or did when I was like 14; I could imagine so many ways it could be a book I would want to throw across the room — and it is really a great book, don’t be scared!)

I think that reaches back into August. This list is from the list of things read recently that I recommend to people (depending on what they like).

Can’t remember if I already said this several months ago but, just go read all of Cixin Liu’s short fiction that’s translated to English. It doesn’t matter what you like to read — it’s that likeable and cool. Note to self: come up with suggested reading order for his short fiction. Oh, no, I guess I’ll have to read them all again and take notes. Noooooooooooo, help!

Cute photo, not of books, but of some friends at a party this weekend. I went to a party! In the night time! Rare event. pHoto description: some people on a couch making faces and sticking out their tongues. Some details: cute overalls, arm warmers, dyed hair, glasses of wine.

Nope party

On a ramble in the city in the sun

Up betimes and to the office, where I had a lively time in various conference rooms and having lunch. Milo brought Minecraft and a book; we hung out talking about role playing games and science fiction with my co-worker Marc and my team’s intern Kate; then had a strangely nice time (for a day when a lot of technical infrastructure broke and we had to flail around to get things to work). I remarked to Ritu and Kate in our free form working-on-things meeting that I was so happy they are both interrupters. If only one of us was, it would be awkward. But with three rapidly thinking juggernaut talkers we jostled ideas and work around them, getting a lot done and building a group understanding of how we’re reading bugs and documentation, looking at metrics, and making decisions. My other team members are also like this. We can listen too — it is a comfortable mosh pit.

As usual I am wildly impressed by the deep knowledge of so many engineers at work. Stuff breaks or we have conflict and yet so much happens. My goal in going after a job at Mozilla was to be in a huge collaboration to make things bigger than I would ever know how to make on my own (after years of mostly lone projects, from zines to book editing to being a lone developer grubbing away in a dark corner). I am still obsessed with what collaboration can be and how it can be structured, and see interesting traces of generations of idealism echoed in our tools. (insert imaginary digression into c2 and meatball wiki history and LambdaMOO…. ) The answer to “why can’t you delete your bugzilla comments?” is actually this giant wild ride into epistemology and communication and truth but you would not necessarily suspect that if you weren’t there. So many things are like this. You look at a bridge, and if you know what ideals inspired the engineers of the time you understand why it is the way it is. Looking at every object, you have to assume that may be the case, just as every person has a deep background from which they have constructed themselves and been constructed. I was feeling this a lot today. This engineering perspective is why I love reading Henry Petroski….

I did promise a ramble! Milo and I went out along the Embarcadero, playing Ingress. I wanted to go down to the end of the pier near the Ferry Building, on this rare warm day when I had the (faked) energy to be out of the house. The sun baked us, we looked at the painted tiles and poetry quotes along the pier, talked to fishermen (who were catching two foot long sharks) and watched a giant cargo ship (in real life and on MarineTraffic.com) go under the Bay Bridge. Oil tanker, Maltese flag, coming from Benicia. Without even trying, we spent an hour loafing around the pier. Pelicans were diving. People asked me about my mobility scooter. Water sparkling, ferries zooming around, someone in a bathing cap swimming around in the freezing ocean! I love waterfronts because they make me feel like I’m in a Richard Scarry Busy Busy World page!

San Francisco waterfront

My plan was then to adventurously take a MUNI train from underground instead of doubling back to get on the F, then transfer to the J to go home Instead, we braved the confusion of underground. The plan: go to the Castro for comic book shopping and dinner. Everything worked out. The train was crowded, but no one was awful. The smellavators, I mean elevators, all worked. We speculated on what it would be like if they just made the lifts into actual toilet stalls. Milo now unfazed by all this chaos while 5 years ago he would have been miserable to be dragged around, needing to check out and daydream or read in order to tolerate it.

I had never been in the Castro underground MUNI station. Weird huh? I knew abstractly that’s what those stairs must be for. But why would I ever go down them? I also have no clue how to get to the underground bit of the Church muni stop. Someday will pop out of it like a gopher and stitch those geographic manifolds.

Everything today was suffused with contentment. I could not stop just quietly enjoying the sunny warmness, the city, thinking on how we were in a place that other people around the world come to on purpose to enjoy.

Pain was terrible today honestly but I was in a state where I could ride it — And enjoy everything.

Liz on a pier in the sun

Cannot do that more than one day in a row. Tomorrow is for working from bed, ice packs on the ankles, and doing nothing more difficult than hobbling out to water the plants on the front porch.

I reminisced a bit to Milo about memories of past SF Pride parades and the Dyke March, and how I feel a little surge of the happiness of coming to SF every time I see the rainbow flags on Market Street. I said how the fact that I roller skated half naked down Market and the next year was in my manual wheelchair hanging onto the back of some strange guy’s motorcycle with my sister pulled along behind me, gives me this weird feeling of strength and history. And how I have been going since 1991, a long time now. We used to take Milo to the playground at Civic Center with my ex Nadine and her family and the kids would just be like, Mom… there is a guy dressed only in balloons. (Yes dear! He’s celebrating! How amusing! Many of the rules of life get broken today!) While I don’t often tell stories about my life to the kids I try to mention at least some of the facts or things that will make them think of their own experiences as existing in a story or history as well and to appreciate everyone around them has experiences as interesting to know as reading a good book. And, I think it would be weird to think of your parent as just your parent, and then 20 years later go, Oh, and by the way surprise she was flouncing around naked in the streets back in the day. Better to know up front so as to get used to the mildly scandalous facts. There is no need to go into details.

So our wandering around today was like my substitute pride weekend. I’ll be out of town this year for work, and anyway, have difficulty keeping up with the crowds. How much nicer to sit in Harvey’s on a mellow day like today — mediocre food but a nice spot to have a drink and gaze out at the rainbow crosswalks – people passing by in their shorts and tank tops. We read the little flyer about Harvey Milk while pondering injustice. Alas, the comic book store was closed on Monday.

Then to avoid the horrors of the 24 at rush hour (always full, passes me up regularly from that direction, rage-inducing) we flaneured down 18th to look out over the park and take the J train. I felt happy thinking of the excellent punk band J Church. Lovely view over Dolores Park. Pointed at our history pet, the Golden Hydrant. (Also, it is a portal, so, hacked it.)

I feel lucky my son can enjoy my quiet pace of wandering around the city and that he is such a good companion for observing and talking, chilling out and reading books in random places. Not for the first or last time I thought of that kind of cheesy sentimental Juana de Ibarbourou prose poem Diary of a Young Mother.

I will be old when my son becomes a man. And when we go out to walk together, I will pretend to be hunchbacked, so that he will seem, at my side, to be more gallant. I will be a little old woman full of crafty tricks. I will learn to stumble once in a while, so that he can support me. I’ll have to feign exhaustion, so that he’ll give me his arm, saying:
          “You’re tired, Mom?”
          And the girls, who surely will all fall in love with him like fools, will say:
          “That crippled old lady on the arm of this handsome elegant man — it’s his mother.”
          And I’ll walk on secretly swelled with pride!

Unlike Juana I don’t have to pretend! And yet am more likely to be the support, open the door, carry his books (since I have this handy sturdy exoskeleton).

Part of a plan! Teen fantasy/sf book and comic book club at Borderlands. I will help Milo make it happen this summer. Isn’t it odd that the libraries, despite having a gazillionty kid/teen events, don’t have just like… a get together for kids who love to read? Not an improving aspirational reading list for the summer or a workshop on origami but … talk with people who love to read for fun, who are your age. Milo remarked how it took him until very recently to realize that most other people don’t read for fun but see it as this special educational activity. It’s good to find your people. It boggles his mind that people would consider one form of culture or art or writing to be somehow elite and high and others, not, when obviously that changes over time anyway and with every new art form! The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this case! But it’s like he gets to avoid my horrible childhood snobbery!

I thought of my nice day yesterday going out with Danny to eat oysters and weird candy cap mushroom creme brulee. We had just a day to catch up between two of his work trips and a ton of ideas to talk about, his talk at PDF, the general odd zeitgeist, what will happen with the elections and disinformation and astroturfing (my code for this is just muttering “venezuela” which if you followed the last 10 years of politics there and online arguments you will know means, you can’t tell what the hell is going on and everything is fucked). (Obviously that political situation is not special to VZ; it’s just that I was paying attention to it at the time.) We talked about writing projects. Gossip — ranging far afield — the psychology of everyone — ourselves — etc.

So, meanwhile, I complain about spending a lot of time just being in bed or on the couch. And sometimes resent that going to the drugstore 3 blocks away is my outside of the house activity for the week. How pathetic that little bit of happiness seems when I feel down or when I’m wishing to travel all over the world. But it isn’t really a bad thing and I think never will be. When I’m 90 I’ll sit on a bench feeling the sun, taking pleasure in that. It will be just fine.

A small but determined ambition: have periodic short writing times, with many different people, including Milo and Danny…. Some sporadic instances of Writing Together but separately time and talking over projects, rather than a regular habit which none of us can stick to because of the structures of our lives. How will I model sustainable feminist activism? This question my therapist posed has been a fine mantra over the past 8 months or so.

This last week I thought a lot about my friends and people in my life, thinking of them with huge affection. I want to write letters to everyone. What if I just write nice letters to people over this next year? But not “just”. The idea I was ticking over at this time last year was to do an anthology that is exactly to my taste of memoir and essay. I want to pull people together to represent this moment as intensely as possible. I am picturing this process and this artifact and will make it happen. I want to get out a lot of my books and stuff about diaries, and memoir, and feminist ethics, and jump from thought to thought to see what gets thrown into the mix before this project coalesces. Last year’s events made it hard for me to settle. Now I think I know what to do here. Think on history and activism. Riot grrrl slips into the realm of the mythical past. Moments flame up like comets. Collisions are bright shining. You know the Combahee River Collective didn’t last forever. But the people carried on their work in different trajectories. What they built still stands. The effort to collaborate that intensely is not failure because it’s ephemeral – Like all relationships.

Anyway, back to the day.

I felt content and good today. The good wishes of hundreds of people casually on Facebook (that exploitable butterfly) made me think fondly of everyone and I felt loved and appreciated for whatever it is I’m doing now, though it isn’t splashy or what I had planned. People are cynical about that “shallow” social interaction but I do love it. What could be wrong about thinking of another person for a moment, even if you don’t have them in mind all the time, or even for years?

Going across town is still a big deal for me that makes me happy. I do miss being able to get in my car and drive around exploring waterfronts and going all the places possible from the map. Instead: this is the time I’m in this city, in this way, and I’m going to enjoy it.

Small ambition!! Friday I am thinking to get a tres leches cake with pineapple whipped cream from Lelenita’s and invite a few people over. Cake time! Maybe… cake and poetry? Salon time; small private spaces. My feeling of not being ready to write a new different (poetry) book solidified oddly while Danny and I talked at our fancy Sunday lunch. I begin to see the problem there. It is our view of the failures of our collectives. Returning to our romantic idea of the End of Greatness. To get there I need to look further somehow.

Obligatory mention of books: Cixin Liu – just read everything of his that you can lay your hands. The novellas and short stories are beautiful. Read many of them in a row! You won’t be sorry.

Court life sounds horrible

In case anyone was wondering whether royal life in the Korean court in the 1700s would be fun or not:

Prince Sado’s illness grew worse. Before he had completely recuperated from his recent bout of smallpox(0), the Two Highnesses passed away. He was saddened by these losses. He was also heavily burdened by the ritual duties of mourning(0.5). . . . During the five-month wake, after a wail(1) at Kyonghun Pavilion His Majesty(2) would invariably drop by at Okhwa Hall to scold his son for whatever he happened to find irritating. Then, when the Prince went to T’ongmyong Pavilion, the same scene would be repeated. How angry this made the Prince! His rage was kindled like a well-constructed fire. It was His Majesty’s habit to rebuke his son in front of a large crowd. It was at T’ongmyong Pavilion, before all the ladies-in-waiting, where the Prince went to honor his grandfather’s memory despite the relentless summer heat of the sixth and seventh months, that His Majesty’s sharpest and most humiliating derision awaited him(2.5).

No longer able to contain his rage, his mind helplessly seized by disease, Prince Sado(3) began to beat his eunuchs severely. Beating servants in the mourning period was, of course, grievously wrong(4) . . . . From that year [1757] his “phobia of clothing” asserted itself(5). I cannot begin to speak of the hardships and heartaches this terrible symptom wrought.

(From The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. I recommend skipping right to the 1805 Memoir for the juicy stuff.)

korean-unicorn

Footnotes:

0.
Smallpox! Fun times.

0.5.
During the mourning period, they would pack blocks of ice around the royal corpse and put seaweed around it to absorb the melting water. I bet that smelled great in the summer heat!

1.
Near as I can tell, royal Korean mourning customs of the time included 5 formal wailing rituals per day. For five months.

2.
King Yeongjo, who ruled for decades and sounded kind of OK, except for being emotionally cold to Sado and one of his sisters, having a lot of very strong phobias, and making Prince Sado attend all the boring interrogations and executions of political criminals while never inviting him to parties. Oh yeah, and that whole thing with the rice chest.

2.5.
Though that moment of sharp derision was nothing to what was going to happen later. Did I mention the rice chest?

3.
Prince Sado had a tragic end as his father ordered him to get into a rice chest (which was something like a giant fancy wardrobe, or a big TV cabinet, except potentially full of rice) and then had him locked in, in front of his family. He died of asphyxiation, or lack or water, or starvation, or something, after 8 days. At least, he kept screaming for a few days and then after 8 days they took a peek in and he was definitely dead.

4.
Apparently, when it’s not the five month mourning period, you can beat your servants all you like. This hardly seems the way to get your servants not to kill you.

5. Each time he changed clothes, Prince Sado would have twenty or thirty sets of clothing laid out. He would burn some of them. If anyone messed up while dressing him, he could not accept those clothes and would beat or kill the servant. For over six years they had to keep finding cloth to make him new outfits. Once he was dressed he’d wear that set of clothes until it was filthy.

So.

Then the Prince chopped off a lot of people’s heads at random, raped a bunch of ladies in waiting, jumped in a well to try and kill himself (failing). For months or maybe years. (Except, obviously, not jumping into a well for years. That was just once.) Everyone covered up for him as best they could, since talking about it would probably get them killed or exiled. When his father the King finally confronted him about this, Prince Sado claimed he did it all because his dad didn’t love him enough.

That was only a tiny glimpse into the messed up drama of palace life. It’s all backstabbing your second cousin over a vaguely worded memo or an imprudently ambiguous sounding comment to the King, gossip, exile, scandal; or, if you’re small, being taken away from your parents, pressured to study the classics, put away your toys, and demonstrate extreme filial piety when you’re barely potty trained. NOT FUN.

korean-rice-chest

Reading about Hyegyeong as well as reading what she wrote makes me think of the nature of history and what we think we know. Her reality is slippery even in her representations of recorded history in the daily life of the palace. She claims for instance to have bribed the palace scribes (daily) to change the record of what the King said that day. People are convicted of treason based on interpretations of memos, then years later pardoned, with plausible explanations of the falsity of the earlier records. She is an awesome unreliable narrator and creator of history. So many official histories look that way; maybe all of them.

“Thus my family gathered all my letters and, at regular intervals, washed away all that was written.”

Reading Manzoni

A short note about a book I’ve just started! This weekend I was listening to the Requiem by Verdi and as I listened was reading about it. Verdi dedicated it to this guy Alessandro Manzoni. So I read about Manzoni, who wrote a classic of Italian literature called I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). It sounds like people in Italy have to read it in high school or college and have all the reactions to it that entails… maybe it is considered stodgy or boring. But! I’m reading it and really love it! It’s very funny & sly.

“The words of a powerful oppressor pierce the heart and fly away. He can rage at you for showing suspicion of him, and at the same moment make it clear that what you suspect is true; and he can insult you and claim that you have insulted him, mock you and demand satisfaction, threaten and complain at the same time. He can be both shameless and irreproachable.”

It’s always heartening to know I can keep getting older and will never run out of mind-blowing, complicated books to read and things to think about. I have many leanings of sympathy towards the point of view that old culture does not have to matter. New things come along and are relevant, beautiful, and complicated too. But I love reading old books. It’s the closest I can get to time travel and communication with ghosts. Imagine a dinner party with Manzoni and, say, Cao Xueqin. I don’t know if a dinner party is really right. But imagine getting to make them read the other one’s books! Maybe more of a reading-all-night slumber party.

More time spent in bed, with books

I am still suffering from Mystery Abdominal Pain and severe nausea. I spent a couple of days in the hospital which helped me get hydrated and have a bit more pain control. This week I’m having more diagnostic tests, resting and sleeping a lot, and trying to make myself eat more than just broth. It is painful, frustrating, scary, and boring. Part of the scare is that I’m not able to eat much (total loss of appetite), the cause is still unknown, and because I’ve been on immunosuppressants for a year it is important to be vigilant for infections and yet the body’s response to infection can be really weird. The hospital I was in was nice as hospitals go, and I think the team of doctors is fantastic, really working as a team and with a smart, science minded, investigative approach. They are also all very good communicators so I feel quite lucky. I am well equipped to handle uncertainty and being stuck in bed, and have vast resources and social support. So, I am okay.

The worst bit of being in the hospital (besides it feeling like every hour was a month long) was having IV Reglan, which I had a bad reaction to. Within 5 minutes I was catapulted into a state of trying to control a feeling of panic and frenzy, like the worst acid trip you can imagine. After about an hour and a half of that, they gave me Ativan which countered it successfully, and more morphine.

I’m very grateful to my friends for sitting through some painful and boring times with me, for their driving me around, sitting with me in the hospital, and spending the night with me at my house to make sure I’m ok.

My friend Ron who had surgery last week ended up in the room next door to me. His wife Helen showed up at my bedside in the night, held my hand and brought me tea and did other little things like that.

Meanwhile, I miss work. Is that weird? I really miss it. I am missing 2 team workweeks that I was looking forward to and getting to be with my team members in person.

Double Union buildout starts for real this week, and I will miss that. But I am doing what I can as secretary and board member. We have over 25 dues paying members now and more folks in the application process. It’s very, very exciting! I can’t wait to just be there and hang out with everyone.

I have ordered xmas presents for everyone online and also found that I can get whole foods groceries through Instacart. I am going to try to eat baked fish today. Anyway. I will try not to go on about food.

Here are some of the books I’ve been reading:

Strange Evil by Jane Gaskell. This book is AMAZING. She was 14 when she wrote it! It’s like Huysmans’ Against Nature in its manipulation of atmosphere and yet it does it in a wider range — forays into something like baroque positivity rather than always dwelling in things sly and perverse. She does it without being twee. During the quite extended journey scene I thought of Tolkien’s descriptions of sailing to the West; Gaskell at age 14 does that sort of thing, but at greater length, and better — never boring! Gaskell is a passionate visionary, and breaks many conventions of fantasy writing — also she has my undying love for having outright class warfare in her her fantasy utopia.

Sensation by Nick Mamatas. This was hilarious, fast moving, and engaging. Conspiracy novel where a superintelligent spider hive mind has been fighting neurotoxic wasps for thousands of years. Some humans begin to figure this out. The gazillion current cultural references made me laugh a lot, sometimes in embarrassed recognition I fit some of the stereotypes. The scene where the ludicrous middle class activists are lying around playing the game that’s the opposite of “Civilization” probably made me laugh the hardest. I was forced to go look up the city of Hamilton! on Wikipedia; as I hoped, it was all true….. I also enjoy when the style veers into hardboiled “A man walked in the door with a gun in his hand” territory and then gets more and more surreal. After I read Nick’s books I always kind of want to make him cookies and give him a hug to get him out of being such a nihilist. Anyway, this book will make a good holiday present, for people who like science fiction, amusing and clever writing, and who have a penchant for saying wry things about Occupy.

Hild: A Novel by Nicola Griffith. This was seriously great. I though many times of Kristin Lavransdatter, of Mary Renault’s books, and a bit of Mary Stewart’s Merlin books (which are good though not up to this quality level). If you like accurate well researched historical fiction that is centered on women’s lives, and you are fond of the fiber arts, you will probably love this book fanatically and it well deserves that love. I’m going to buy a paper copy of this for my feminist hackerspace! p.s. Hild is an amazing badass. p.p.s. After you finish the book there is So Much History to poke into, so that it’s a joy to surf around and go deeper.