akashiver: (avatar)
Yep, I'm alive. And I now have a revised draft of my academic book manuscript, even if there's still some tweaking to be done. So I emerge from out of my hermit hole for a quick "best of" roundup of the books I've read for pleasure this year. Just in time for Christmas!

Books read for Pleasure:

Memorable Fantasy novels:

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death?

Okorafor takes the familiar fantasy quest narrative, moves it to post-apocalyptic Africa, anchors it with a strong female protagonist, weaves in interesting postcolonial themes, and includes a brutal scene depicting female circumcision that's going to stick with me for years to come. With that description I've either turned you off or on this book. You decide.

Valentine, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

It's unfortunate that Mechanique and The Night Circus came out in the same year, because they're both lovely examples of magic-realist circus fabulism. But Valentine's writing is haunted by the trauma of war and by visions of flight, and in the end, I thought it was just splendid. By a hair, Mechanique takes the "best novel about a fantasy circus" award for 2012.

Urban Fantasy Debut, Honorable Mention:

If you've read the rest of this list you'll notice that I've included a suspicious number of books whose descriptions include the word "death" or "murder." 

You know what book is NOT all about death and/or murder? And is frothy fun with an innovative magic system?

Michael Underwood's Geekomancy. In which characters "power-up" for battles by watching Buffy and The Matrix, because in this world, being able to recall dialogue from The Princess Bride translates into epic magic sword-fighting abilities. Mike's a friend of mine and his debut novel's a geekarific blast.

Memorable YA:

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

2 smart teens meet at a cancer support group and fall in love. The narrator, 16 year old Hazel, let's us know from the first page that she has a terminal diagnosis. As she and everyone around her know, this love story will not have a happy ending. But Hazel's story is witty, sharply-observed  compelling and -- like love itself -- worth the trip.

Best Lit Award Winner:

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

I don't know how Mantel managed to make a stream-of-consciousness novel about Thomas Cromwell so interesting the first time round, let alone for a sequel. If anything, Bring Up the Bodies is even better than Wolf Hall. This time, Cromwell's scheming not only serves Henry VIII's whims but Cromwell's desire to avenge his mentor's death. A bloody good book on all levels.

Memorable Psychological Thriller #1

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

This was the year Flynn broke through with Gone Girl, the mystery every book club loved to read. But while I liked Gone Girl, Dark Places -- Flynn's 2nd novel -- was the one that really blew me away. The premise: as a 7 year old Libby Day famously survived the massacre of her family and served as the key witness in the trial of her older brother. 25 years later, manipulative Libby has blown through her charity money and is desperate for cash. So when a macabre club obsessed with notorious crimes invites her to be a paid guest speaker at one of their meetings, Libby is willing to go. What she doesn't expect is for the questions they ask to stir up ones of her own.

Flynn has a great command of voice, and it's on full display here as she jumps between time periods and points of view. Skillfully done.

Memorable Psychological Thriller #2

Tana French, Broken Harbor

It's not quite as memorable as In the Woods, but Broken Harbor is French's best since her debut. There's just something... unsettling about this story of a detective called in to investigate a horrific murder in a  nearly-empty Irish housing development. The murder seems straightforward, but like the collapse of the Irish housing economy, so much turns on perception. And perceptions can't be trusted. For those of you who read Freud's essay on the Uncanny: Exhibit A.

Memorable Non-Fiction

Katherine Boo, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

I heard Boo speak when she came to Delaware. Having heard her stories of the personal risks she took in investigating the murder of street kids in Mumbai, I think the thing that impressed me the most about the book is: none of those stories are there. Bucking the usual investigative non-fiction trend, Boo leaves herself out of this book entirely. Instead, we get to witness the unfolding lives of Mumbai slum-dwellers as though we're flies on the wall. The people we meet are memorable and their stories are devoid of the expected cliches of struggle and triumph. Well worth the read.

Preston and Stezi, The Monster of Florence

What if you decided to research an old murder case as famous in Italy as the Jack the Ripper murders are in the Anglophone world? What if, thanks to a corrupt Italian police system, you became a suspect? This non-fiction story is a jaw-dropping narrative about random - and institutional - forms of evil.

Allende, The Sum of Our Days

Didion's Blue Nights was excellent, but f***ing depressing. In contrast, Allende's description of the years following the death of her daughter is warm, poignant, and has stories about hallucinogenic tea and domestic scandals. So this one's my pick.

Best Academic Book (I.E. Book not read for pleasure)

Lauren Benton. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

This meticulously researched history of legal geographies examines the ways that certain types of space -- mountains, rivers, oceans etc. -- challenged imperial sovereignty. Benton convincingly argues that certain types of legal problems -- mutinies, for example -- became associated with certain types of anomalous space. For those of us interested in imperialism and geography, Benton's book is a fascinating and elucidating read.
akashiver: (avatar)
I'm planning to post some kind of updatery thing once I get these papers / this manuscript / this proposal done. In the meantime though, why don't you just gaze upon one of The New Yorker's top television scenes from 2012: an awkward conversation between exes on Girls.

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Go vote, Americans.
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I just saw Looper and enjoyed the hell out of it. Props to the script: the foreshadowing was very, very subtle. Also, I appreciated the fact that the writers didn't rely on a cast of stereotypes, but developed their minor players. Hell, even red-shirt assassin-guy got some character development, and he was only on screen for, like, 5 seconds.

In the news

Oct. 8th, 2012 09:17 am
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From the NYT, an article about defining productivity by work produced, not hours spent: They Work Long Hours, but What About Results?
"...a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers. Their contribution should be measured by the value they create through applying their ideas and skills."
It's aimed at a different work environment than academia, but I still found parts of it useful. Most notably:
"In general, don’t waste your time creating A-plus work when B-plus is good enough. Use the extra time to create A-plus work where it matters most."

This I have to keep in mind, particularly for teaching.
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The Master - aka Paul Thomas Anderson's film about the early days of Scientology, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a crazed veteran-turned cultist -- is pretty much everything you'd expect from the director of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. In other words, I'm still not sure what I watched. It was good, and Phoenix's performance was amazing. But the pacing of the movie was strange. It didn't hit the narrative beats I was expecting, or make them the focus of the scene when it did. I could talk about what I think the movie was about, but there's no point spoiling it.

I will say that at least one person walked out of the film screaming that it was disgusting, which was strange. This was made stranger by the fact that the "sex" scene that offended her wasn't even a real sex scene, but an odd masturbation scene, and the angry lady had sat through much weirder shit by that point. So this is a film that can really push people's buttons, apparently. Or, bore them to the point they fall asleep (the person in the aisle next to me.) So... yeah.

Cabin in the Woods was all it was rumored to be. I was charmed by it, and by the killer unicorn, and by the Japanese school girls with the happy frog. My only complain is re: the appearance of the Lovecraftian gods. THAT'S NOT WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE. The end.

A Separation -- the Iranian domestic drama that picked up the Oscar last year -- is definitely worth a watch if you like foreign films. It's an interesting slice-of-life in Iran. It's not a happy movie but it's not relentlessly tragic either.

That's it for now.
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Everyone else seems to be talking about their media-watching habits today, so why not?

My big discovery this summer was Breaking Bad, which I devoured in a massive marathon. I'm now caught up, and while I'm not completely happy with some of the characterization choices in Season 5, there's no question this is a spankingly well-written show. It's brutally dark, funny, suspenseful, and at the same time an intensely moving human drama.

Unlike, say, Mad Men, which I also like, but which is also a show preoccupied with slick surfaces, BB is preoccupied with people's raw interiors. And, like Downton Abbey (*there's* a comparison I bet the showrunners never saw coming,) it's about people who fundamentally like each other. Or, you know, despise each other. Either way, when the chips are down and characters are doing desperate, stupid, awful things to save the people they care about -- as a viewer, I care too.

I said in an earlier post that BB is brimming over with lessons for good writing, and for me this is a useful takeaway. It's not as simple as "writing characters who care" -- Hollywood movies are full of heroes motivated by their relationships. But usually, in such stories, the heroes wear their hearts on their sleeves. It's much more compelling when characters *don't* telegraph how they feel, or aren't themselves aware how much they care about a certain issue, until they are put into a conflict. BB repeatedly *tests*  its characters, and the outcome of those tests isn't predictable. It makes for compelling television.

What else? I'm steaming ahead with Babylon 5 and with the new Dr. Who, which I'm charmed but not compelled by. And Project Runway, where Dmitri is my personal fave, for personality if not design reasons.
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Because it's also been a while since I've done one of these...

A Knight's Tale: The TV Series?
“'Battlestar Galactica' show runner Ron Moore is developing a TV series adaptation of Brian Helgeland's 2001 medieval romantic adventure flick "A Knight's Tale" for Sony Pictures.

The original film starred Heath Ledger as William Thatcher, a medieval peasant masquerading as a knight and competing in tournaments, along the way meeting real life figures like The Black Prince (James Purefoy) and poet Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany).

My analysis: *Could* be a good idea, at least for those of us who’d respond well to a medieval who’s-who with Queen songs and tournaments.

This could be fun, although my skepticism alarm is going off: All-Female "The Expendables" Planned
"Dutch Southern has come onboard to pen the estrogen-fuelled riff of the star-studded action franchise. Several prominent actresses affiliated with the action genre are already said to be in talks with the company."

"Said to be in talks," eh? Can I have more vague with that vagary? There's also the fact that I don't think the average Hollywood studio exec could think of a female action lead beyond Angelina Jolie. So we’ll see if this project pans out.

In cool YA adaptation news, the "Z for Zachariah" film is going ahead with Tobey Maguire. The big question is who the female lead will be. I'm hoping for an unknown actress.

In polar news, Matt Damon is making a “South Pole” (read – Scott & Amundsen) movie starring Casey Affleck. This does not sound like a good idea. No it does not. Not at all.

First of all, if there's a polar exploration movie that needs to be made, it's Endurance. Ships being crushed by ice, men being hunted by leopard seals, people jumping off mountains because they're going to freeze to death if they spend another minute at that altitude - *that's* a Hollywood polar movie.

Secondly, the Scott-Amundsen story has already been portrayed, fantastically, in the BBC's brutal The Last Place on Earth miniseries.

Thirdly, Casey Affleck? WHAT? No, no, no, no, NO.

Finally: Argo ending altered so as not to annoy Canadians.

Damn straight.
akashiver: (Default)
First of all, thanks for all your suggestions re: dystopian fiction/tv shows. I haven't heard yet if the course has been approved, but it seems likely that it will be.

I'm excited about this course: it would be my first large lecture course, AND it's a new genre course for me to design. Both of the Brit lit classes I'm teaching this semester are versions of courses I've taught before. Work-load-wise this is a good thing - a lot of prep time is saved - but, masochistically, I miss the frenetic joys and anxieties of a new syllabus.
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My second dystopian question for you mighty lj types: what television shows (and episodes!) might you teach in a class on dystopias?
akashiver: (Default)
I'm brainstorming for a course I'm developing on dystopian fiction (loosely defined). "Hunger Games" will definitely be on there, as will "1984" for old times' sake. But beyond that, I'm interested in including short stories and novels that feature interesting modes of resistance to the dystopia. Failing that, just interesting dystopias, period.

What suggestions do you have?
akashiver: (Default)

Q. "What were you thinking, drinking bubble mixture?"
A. "I wanted turn into a bubble."

It's a good message, and stuff like that.
akashiver: (Default)
Courtesy of my brother:

1) I swear I met this guy like, three times in Boston. People there seem to like breaking out weird dance moves in the street for no discernible reason.

2) I'm sure American music videos make about as much sense to Koreans.

3) From the English translation of this video's description:
"The song is characterized by its strongly addictive beats and lyrics, and is thus certain to penetrate the foundations of modern philosophy."
Indeed, I will never read again read Kierkegaard or Heidegger without wondering what the hell those horses are doing and where yellow suit guy got those sweet duds.
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Back from a wonderful, lobsteriffic Maine trip with . The weather was gorgeous, so we ended up cycling and boating a lot. We also caught a very strong production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus during an evening stop in Boston, which seems like a wonderful city. I hope to get back there at some point to see people and, you know. Things.

Now for something completely different. Courtesy of my brother, I present you with two videos you may well have already seen.

#1: if you need a chortle

and #2: if you want to restore your faith in humanity

Jeff Ragsdale: The man who gave the world his number

In the news

Aug. 1st, 2012 09:12 am
akashiver: (Please)

My favorite, because it's both good writing advice and terrible life advice:
Rule No. 6: What isn’t said is as important as what is said. In many classic short stories, the real action occurs in the silences. Try to keep all the good stuff off the page. Some “real world” practice might help. The next time your partner comes home, ignore his or her existence for 30 minutes, and then blurt out “That’s it!” and drive the car onto the neighbor’s lawn. When your children approach at bedtime, squeeze their shoulders meaningfully and, if you’re a woman, smear your lipstick across your face with the back of your wrist, or, if you’re a man, weep violently until they say, “It’s O.K., Dad.”
.... Simply let this thought guide your every word and gesture: “Something is wrong — can you guess what it is?” If you’re going for something a little more postmodern, repeat the above, but with fish.       
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I'm looking for a respectable academic source on the mythology of underground space (caves etc.) in British culture. This includes folktales, Christian theology etc. Any suggestions?
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An unusually sweet and reassuring piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed. A lot of it rang painfully true for me, particularly the "I felt as if I had no future" part.

Turning 'Plan B' Into a 'Plan A' Life

"Perhaps no one who knows of me as an Oxford editor would think that is the case, but virtually everything in my life since my high-school graduation has been the result of not getting what I really wanted. To think about autobiography or personal history in a historical way, my life's course has been set by moments of contingency—when societal, economic, or familial forces collided with internal forces, usually despair, self-doubt, or personal rejection.

Without detailing what I really wanted, I will just say that I've come to appreciate that being No. 2 or lower on the hierarchy has made me who I am. That person is surely more resilient as a result, and there is extra sweetness in achieving what I have had to work hard to get."
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A quick reading report.

I continue to be enthralled by Hilary Mantell, who shows in Bring Up the Bodies that stream-of-consciousness can not only reveal character but also crank up suspense. If you like political intrigue and Tudor court politics then you should have already read Wolf Hall. BUTB is next in line, and it's just as good as WH. My favorite use of  flashback / telling detail in this novel: Cromwell bracing his wrists when Henry turns on him. It's a chilling, tense scene that also provides a lovely illumination of Cromwell's childhood. I'm sure we'll see more of these recollections in Book #3.

Gilian Flynn's Gone Girl is a gripping psychological page-turner. I love the instability of the narration, and the twist in the plot caught me by surprise. But on finishing it, I can't say that I  believed in these characters. The villain in particular was just too effective. Also, everyone in this novel is a variant on a serial-killer story character type, which I realize fits with the novel's look how enmeshed we are in pop culture theme, but ultimately meant that I didn't find these character unique or compelling.

Also, I read 50 Shades of Grey. It was better than Twilight, and that's... pretty much all I have to say about that.
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Further thoughts on tall ships: on a recent day sail we have a group of seniors on board, and I was introduced anew to the Problems with Tall Ships. Monitoring kids on board is one thing - they're always trying to squirm through cannon ports or fall over the rail. But monitoring bird-boned seniors as they falter their way around a deck covered with ropes and pointy things, while crew frantically tries to haul sail -- that's a new kind of difficult.

Anyway. We briefly got caught on a mud bank - the river tide was very low - but we freed ourselves. And I got more sail-handling in than I've done on previous sails. It was fun.

Research-wise, the sailing came in handy in revising my book chapter on tall ships. There were a couple points where I was strongly tempted to add a footnote using my training as a source, but I'll hold off on that unless it's absolutely necessary.

That's it for now. I might get to do some ocean sailing in August. We'll see.


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