Friday, December 7, 2018

Academic Novels to Avoid . . . .

Academic novels are something of a hobby of mine. . . . but I thinking the following, Trigger Warning, is one that might not make my Christmas wish list this year. It's basically every radical right-wing conspiracy theory about universities combined into one book. Here's the Chronicle's summation: here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Top 10 Books Reading Challenge

So, there's been a "reading challenge" on facebook these last few weeks. You're supposed to post your top 10 most personally influential books with a cover photo. Well, I'm not going to spend space posting covers here, but here goes nothing. . ..

(Books presented in the order in which I read them.)

  1. The Ten-Speed Babysitter, by Allison Cragin Herzig and Jane Lawrence Mali. This following one shouldn't be considered a "favorite," but it's the first novel I ever read. 3rd grade, maybe early 4th grade, I'm thinking. Previously, I had read non-fiction books about dogs and dinosaurs, but no fiction.
    • Honorable mention: Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. The Little Eddie series by Carolyn Haywood (4th grade). The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley (5th grade).
    • I didn't read my first fantasy novel, Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon, until maybe the summer between 5th grade & 6th, although now I'm less-than-proud to say I've read maybe 30 or 40 of his books in total.
  2. The Belgariad, by David Eddings. I probably read these 5 books (and the subsequent 5 books in The Mallorean) 10 times a-piece while growing up. It's fair to say that they've done a lot to shape my general worldview and sense of humor, despite their flaws.
  3. The Illearth War, by Stephen R. Donaldson. I first read this series in 7th grade but found it boring . . . then re-read it in high school, starting with this book (which is actually Bk 2) and couldn't put it down. Life changed.
    • Honorable mention: SRD's Gap sequence.
  4. The Black Company, by Glen Cook. Absolutely love Cook, although he's another one of those mid-list authors that isn't as well known as he deserves. Also another book I first read in highschool, but Cook became an obsession after I read his last 4 BC books (#6-10) in my early twenties. Also loved The Instrumentalities of the Night.
  5. The Dark Border, by Paul Edwin Zimmer. My absolute favorite set of books for ages, up until I (re-)read Donaldson in highschool my senior year.
  6. Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder, edited by David G. Hartwell. The first short story collection I ever read, which I bought for its beautiful green leather cover, and it made me love the form. And it introduced me to a whole host of new writers, including Ellison.
  7. The Pastures of Heaven, by John Steinbeck. This isn't Steinbeck's most famous work by any means, but it's the first I read by him and the one that made me love him completely.
  8. Bluebeard and Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut. Not the first books I read by KV, but certainly my favorites. I actually started out with Welcome to the Monkey House, and my mother then got me his complete works for Christmas -- I'm no longer quite sure why, but it worked out in the end. Managed to read all of Vonnegut my freshman year at Lycoming, I think it was.
  9. The Essential Ellison, by Harlan Ellison. First read him as a teenager when I loved his "mouthy radical" vibe. Kinda worried that his fiction wouldn't hold up when I re-read it as an adult . . . but, except for a few wince-worthy bits, his kick-in-the-gonads type of fiction is still top notch. I picked this omnibus although his collection The Deathbird and Other Stories probably got to me first.
  10. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The first novel I read by her, and still my favorite.
  11. Faithless, by Joyce Carol Oates. Although it's hard to pick any ONE thing from her, I'll go with the following short story collection, which does have one of my favorite covers of all time.
  12. Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling. Need any more be said?
  13. The Bull from the Sea, by Mary Renault. One of the best historical novelists ever-- and this is the first novel I read by her. And scrupulously detailed about ancient Greek life. 
    • Honorable mention to The Incas by Daniel Peters, and The Egyptian by Mika Waltari.
Okay, okay, I cheated and listed thirteen books. Notably, the first six entries were all read (or re-read) by the time I finished high school. . . #7 was read during winter break from Lycoming College. . . proving that books affect you the most when young.

Afterwards, the other books were after adulthood. #9-#11 were all encountered during my "dark" time in my early 20s between dropping out of Lyco and re-enrolling at Kent State. During this time, a honorable mention must also go to Mika Waltari, a Finnish historical novelist. I first read The Roman by him, and then The Egyptian during my first year at Kent State main campus. A really sexist writer, I now realize, but very powerful for me at the time.

I discovered #12 during my MA at Ohio State -- actually took two weeks off from grad work just to read those books, and finished The Deathly Hallows in one marathon 14-hour reading session. HP is also the only fantasy to make this list after I graduated high school, although N. K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy could be a recent contender. Except for a few of my favorites like Donaldson and Cook, I basically stopped reading the fantasy genre for like 15 years after high school graduation. Just got bored with how formulaic the genre seemed to have gotten, and didn't really return to it, despite a dissertation on Tolkien (who doesn't make this list, btw), until a few years ago.

Anyway, last book . . . can't remember exactly when I first read #12, but it might be the only book to make this list after I turned 30. Basically, all her historical novels are pure gold.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Random Offer of Someone's Tolkien Hoard

So, odd but cool thing . . . got a random e-mail the other day from a nice lady who offered me her entire Tolkien collection. Turns out she was downsizing for an upcoming move. Her e-mail also included an itemized list of everything she had, and it was quite the impressive collection, I thought. Unfortunately, I already either had the books or had already read them -- thankfully, as an academic, I've learned that interlibrary loan is my friend.

So I told her I had to pass, but I also knew another Tolkienist who heads the library at Pima Community College, so hopefully that'll pan out.

Out of curiosity, I also asked her how she got my name. Apparently some fellow Tolkien enthusiast friend of her's in Hawaii (!) had heard of me and, somehow, knew that I resided in the Tucson area.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The "True Crimes" Podcast

From the interview I posted about a few weeks ago, the podcast(s) has gone up. The first is a mini-podcast (only 6 minutes) on "Violence and Ghosts."

The second is the first official full-length "true crimes" episode of Wildcat Crimes: "The Myths, Legends and Crimes Behind the Haunting of Maricopa Hall" -- i.e., one of the local all-female resident dorms. I appear at the 22-minute and 34-minute marks.

I'm a bit embarrassed about my first answer in the full-length episode . . . the question about ghosts and women, and I answered with the old tradition about women being less rational and more emotional than men. That's true as far as it goes, but I could have mentioned the concept of transgressed gender roles and the idea of the "monstrous feminine." Plus I'm a horrible speaker. Alas. . .  still a fun experience, though.

Marion Zimmer Bradley Revisited

Back in January, I wrote a blog entry wondering why Marion Zimmer Bradley wasn't a bigger dealing of academic critics -- she was a feminist, a combo SF&F writer, an analyst of male and female sexuality, a massively influential editor, and several other awesome things. She wrote a lot of forgettable novels, as any pulp-writer does, but I wrote that entry after finishing The Heritage of Hastur and being blown away by it. After recently finishing the follow-up, Sharra's Exile, the question occurred to me again, so I did some digging, and found something that I'd originally glossed over: the fact that Moira Greyland has accused her mother, MZB, and her father Walter Breen of raping her as a child.
I had known that Walter Breen, to whom MZB had dedicated several of her novels, died in prison on multiple accounts of child abuse (and he had even written publicly on the legitimacy of man-boy relationships). Yet Bradley's involvement is something I hadn't really thought about. Greyland paints a truly harrowing picture -- "My mother was an icy, violent monster whose voice twisted up my stomach." According to Greyland, both Bradley and Breen were gay, pagan, and apparently believed that everyone was "naturally" homosexual; early exposure to sexual activity as a child would allegedly help eliminate homophobia and other such things.

Obviously, reading this in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation process, the idea of believable accusations hasbeen often in my mind. But, after having just finished the two Darkover novels mentioned above, I'm also seeing some uncomfortable ideas in MZB's own books. Both novels have positive gay characters (Regis Hastur most notably), but there's also Dyan Ardais -- a grown man who clearly favors sex with boys in their early teens. His forcible rape of Danilo, which took advantage of Dyan's status as the boy's commander, is presented as horrific . . . but, significantly, Dyan is protected by nearly every powerful male around him, including allegedly admirable men such as Regis's grandfather and Kennard Alton. Although Danilo eventually comes to terms with his abuse (and eventually identifies as homosexual himself), Dyan is never punished . . . and, strangely, actually adopts Danilo as his heir at the end of The Heritage of Hastur, which is presented as a form of restitution, even though the texts gives no indication that Dyan ever stops molesting other little boys. It was disturbing to read that in Heritage, and it was disturbing to see that same theme continued in Sharra's Exile: Dyan, though never heroic, ends up dying a hero's death.

I'm still not quite sure how to think of the lifetime's work of MZB. In my monsters class, we were talking about Lovecraft's racism, and very, very few of the students were willing to not read a writer because they hold now-discredited and immoral views. Still, what MZB seems to have did exists on another category than scientific racism entirely. . . . and might be a legit reason why current academics avoid her work.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Interviewed for a U of A podcast!

So, one of the local U of A media students is doing a podcast on true crime, and her first episodes is on "ghosts." She asked for an interview after noticing that I was teaching a course on monsters, and of course I was delighted to participate. Just finished up now. Since she set me a list of pre-set questions, I'm just going to post them here -- fun stuff!

Firstly, have you heard of the Maricopa Hall haunting, and if so what have you heard?
Oh yes, sure I have. I actually first heard about the haunting of the Modern Language Building, because that’s where the English Department is. Then when I was prepping for my Monsters class this semester, I googled haunted U of A buildings and found some websites on things like Maricopa Hall haunting.
The websites didn’t strike me as the most reliable things in the world, but there’s various stories for Maricopa Hall. 
  1. (a wealthy young female U of A student who committed suicide when she found out her future husband was cheating on her. 
  2. some conflicting reports that Maricopa Hall was originally intended to be the President’s private mansion back in the early 1910s. 
  3. a myth about a duel between two women in the desert, long before the U of A was even founded.
How do you approach stories that may have multiple different retellings?
I think it’s best if you treat each one unique. There may be a dozen different versions of Cinderella in films and literature – what does this one try to accomplish? And that’s just formal reworkings. For people who do folklore, they know that there’s hundreds, maybe even thousands, of versions of Cinderella out there. That’s because in oral storytelling no one story is ever told exactly the same way twice.
Actually, this idea of treating each new retelling as unique goes for just about anything. How many movies are there about the original stories for Batman and Spiderman, for example? Good stories will try to do something new and unique for the tradition. Bad stories will just bore you tears.
Where do urban legends and ghost stories fall within the realm of literature?
Urban legends are kinda tricky, cuz usually they’re entirely oral narratives. They’re not written down, normally, and they don’t have authors, so I might categorize them as folklore rather than literature.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting, or that you can’t analyze them. Take any urban legend you want -- in my monsters class this semester, I used the old urban legend about a man who wakes up in a tub of ice only to find that his kidney has been removed.
It’s not literature in the sense that we analyze it for characterization or symbolism; it’s not Shakespeare. But it still tells you stuff about the culture that produces that particular story.
Ghost stories are a somewhat different kettle of fish. They are written down, and they do often have authors.
Ghost stories are actually a pretty robust subgenre of literature, especially in the last 150 years or so—people still tell them all the time. And they have a pretty respectable past, too. For example, I’m sure you know Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is celebrating it’s 200th anniversary. Well, that was partly inspired because Mary and her friends were reading German ghost stories, and they got inspired.
How do you see female ghosts represented in literature and storytelling?
Well, that’s a pretty loaded question! Partly, there is this long tradition of associating women with the supernatural—just think about European fears over witchcraft over the centuries, and women were almost always female. Really, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was one of the first books that made witches good, and he was actually a major feminist for his time.

But the reason women have always been associated with the supernatural, I think, comes from this old sexist tradition that women were more emotional and less rational than men. So female ghosts have somehow always been seen as somehow spookier or more monstrous.

As in anything, ghost story writers really love to play around with those kinds of old tropes. I just saw this really fantastic British film, The Little Stranger, for example. Came about two months ago. Without giving anything anyway, it really throws a wrench into all those old gender stereotypes about female ghosts, and it’s really cool.
Do you see a significant connection between violence and ghosts in storytelling?
Definitely. M. R. James, who was this Victorian scholar famous for his ghost stories, thought that the ghosts should always be “odious” and frightful. Violence or the threat of violence is usually a part of that. It’s not enough that a character meets something supernatural—if a story’s going to be scary, that supernatural entity has to be dangerous in some way.

Of course, not all ghost stories are violent. The most famous ghost story of time, Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, isn’t violent at all.

But violence ends up being a great plot device for injecting that element of fear and terror into a story, and that’s the angle a lot of ghost stories take.
Why do you think people tell ghost stories?
Cuz they’re fun. Most horror stories—and ghost stories are usually a subset of horror—work on the basis of a boundary. Here’s some line in the sand that shouldn’t get crossed . .. well, that line’s been crossed, so here are the terrible consequences. The thing is, crossing boundaries like that can be terrible—but they can also be enjoyable.

Just think of people who do modern day ghost hunting. A lot of them, I don’t think, actually believe in ghosts, though they might pretend do. But ghost-hunting means they get to cross forbidden boundaries—they go into that cemetery at night, they explore that abandoned building, etc. They might visit that old mental asylum. Reading ghost stories is just another kind of low-key risk-taking, and that’s fun.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Critiquing a Critique of Postmodernism?

Been reading a monograph by Dr. Adrian Howe, a postmodern feminist, called Sex, Violence and Crime: Foucault and the ‘Man’ Question. She's a criminologist who approaches her subject from a poststructuralist perspective. One section tackles another criminologist critical of PM-modes of thinking, Stan Cohen. I think her discussion worth posting about because it highlights my own skepticism to PM questioning and problemization.

So, Howe has two basic issues with Cohen (States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering).
  1. Cohen resusitates the public/private distinction that feminists hate, and
  2. his anti-postmodern way of tackling issues like denial strategies, discrediting whistleblowers, re-naming & justifications. He's critical of such things, of course, but as acts, not as matters of discourse
So, let's take Howe's second problem with Cohen in particular. According to Howe, Cohen lambasts the idea “that there can be no access to current or historical reality from outside a vantage-point of power,” which is the most “pernicious element” of the postmodern critique of positivism or Enlightenment rationality (qtd. in Howe 17). [Hint: my argument is that Howe's attempted refutation actually largely substantiates Cohen's assertions here.]

Howe responds to Cohen  by noting that “unsubstantiated assertion is elevated to an art form in the anti-postmodern camp” (18), a frequent complaint by postmodernists like to make. . . . but then she basically substantiates Cohen claims through the following summary of Judith Butler. For context, Butler wishes to "interrogate" -- a favorite postmodernist word -- what truly authorizes acts of "conceptual mastery." To wit:

Taking a position that ‘places itself beyond the play of power’, that ‘lays claim to its legitimacy through recourse to a prior and implicitly universal agreement’ is, Butler argues, ‘perhaps the most insidious ruse of power’. What form of ‘insidious cultural imperialism’, she asks, ‘legislates itself under the sign of the universal’? . . . power pervades all conceptual frameworks, including that of postmodernisms’s critics. Crucially, however, the imbrication of all speaking positions in a ‘field of power is not the advent of a nihilistic relativism incapable of furnishing norms, but, rather, the very precondition of a politically engaged critique’. That is, recognizing and fully owning one’s privileged speaking position is our first ethical duty” (Howe 18; all quotes are Butler's).
That is to say, any claim of denial against the ubiquity of the power structures inherent in discourse is itself the surest sign of power -- an"insidious" (Butler's word) rhetorical move, a form of "cultural imperialism" or conceptual "mastery."

Of course, Butler and Howe themselves are engaging in a power move. "If you disagree with you, that simply proves that we're right." They bolster their counter-power move through language like "insidious," "imperialism," "mastery," and "ruse of power." . . .  which ignores, of course, that such language works more strongly on the level of emotion than on logic, which needless to say suggests a less-than-arduous analytical rigor. That's why philosopher like to use formal logic: natural language contains so much ambiguity and emotiveness that the pure logic of arguments becomes easy to miss.

So, a problem emerges for Howe and Butler. If everything's a power move, how do they avoid their charges against Cohen being directly against themselves? Really, they can't. Postmodern discourse is a sort of power move on equal status as the alleged power moves of non-postmodern discourse. 

They can, however, add their caveat about the  "first ethical duty" being to question one's own subject-position, which apparently Cohen doesn't do to their satisfaction. If power pervades all conceptual frameworks, including the frameworks employed by postmodernists, then postmodernists can seem to avoid the self-referential problem simply by claiming that they occupy the high ground. "We question our subject positions, but you don't." Note, of course, the vagueness of a verb like "questioning"; too often -- and this seems the case here -- a phrase like "questioning our subject-positions" operates as a way to forestall critique; one's opponents refuse to question their subject-positions as rigorously as you yourself do.

The problem with this view, though, is precisely what Cohen --as quoted by Howe -- says it is. If PM discourse is a power move, and it is, then it's not enough to question our own subject position when it comes to things that seem to demand a refusal of problemization: things like atrocities (Cohen's main interest), or the undeniable fact of global warming, or "real" facts over "alternative facts." PM must avoid truth claims . . . but truths claims undeniably have politically effective power.

The issue is that PM is so clearly a tool of the cultural & political left that PMists simply do not have to deal with postmodernists from the cultural and political right. As such, such postmodernists -- who hail almost entirely from the cozy confines of academia -- never really have to face having their core methodology used against them. Nietzsche and Heidegger were perhaps the last really useful postmodern thinkers on the right, but the postmodern left treats Nietzsche's and Heidegger's political views as historical idiosyncrasies rather than a direct outgrowth of their views on language, valuation, and historicity. But those implications are almost entirely ignored by the PM Left.

And it's interesting how Howe seems to refuse to accept the logical consequences of her own position. For example, dismissing the anti-PM claims of nihilism and relativism, Howe states:
many poststructuralist feminists, me included, have no intention of turning away from questions of truth and justice. . . . We also continue to strive to get justice for victims—never forgetting, of course, that what counts as justice is as discursively mediated as truth.” (178).
She's absolutely right about that, I think -- most poststructuralist feminists do not have any interest in turning away from truth claims. They certainly want to appeal to truth claims . . . even though, as Howe clearly states earlier, all claims to truth are "insidious" power-ploys that suggest a something that exists outside representation. Postmodern feminists like Howe are claiming, "We believe in justice . . . but, at the same time, we don't believe in justice." Judith Butler herself used this have-one's-cake-and-eat-it-too ploy when she devised her arguments in favor of "strategic essentialism": we'll employ theoretically untenable essentialist views when it's (politically) convenient to do so.

Rather than making several "unsubstantiated assertions," then, Cohen's characterization of postmodern issues appears absolutely accurate.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Shannara Chronicles

I'd been hearing for a few years about The Shannara Chronicles, a fantasy adaptation of Terry Brooks clearly trying to take advantage of the Game of Thrones buzz. I've always been drastically curious about it. Brooks's first Shannara novel is, infamously, an almost point-by-point copy of The Lord of the Rings, and I knew that the series (which premiered on MTV) began with Brooks's equal, The Elfstones of Shannara. But the success of the adaptation has been always something that's aroused my curiosity.

Well, no more. Last night the wife and I watched the first episode, and . . . . well, egads. Bad bad bad bad bad. Imagine a show full of ridiculously beautiful teenagers who can't act, put horrible plastic fake-looking Elf ears on them, and then insert a whole bunch of genre cliches and banalities. The Shannara Chronicles ends up being the result. Skipping the rest of the series seems like a pretty safe decision, methinks. Even for a teenaged target audience with low expectations, I'm surprised it managed to last two full season.

Interestingly enough, I loved The Elfstones of Shannara when I was 12 or 13 or so. I read a ton of Terry Brooks as a young'un, way before I'd ever read LotR, and thought it was wonderful. A few years back I tried re-reating The Sword of Shannara, though, and stopped 50 pages in. It's hard to imagine how jarring the phrase "mutually assured destruction" can be in a fantasy novel.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Harlan Ellison Gets Roasted

Ran across a "roast" of Harlan Ellison a few days back. A few of my favorites:
  • Screenwriter David Gerrold: "The fact that Ellison is a self-made man relieves God of a great responsibility." 
  • Gerrold again: "I've been Harlan's friend for six years. Of course, I've known him for eighteen years. . . ." 
  • Robert Bloch: "I first met Harlan in 1952. He was 18, and I was unlucky."
 The full roast can be read here.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Lembas is tastier than you think

So, I have a teacherly friend who's doing a composition course focused on food, and one of her students picked Tolkien's lembas. Since they have to do brief e-mail interviews, Laura asked me if I'd be up for it, and of course it was. It was a fun exercise, who I decided to post the questions as well as my responses.

(1) Which theory [lembas as communion bread or military hardtack)] do you believe is more accurate, and what is your personal belief on this subject? Does it make a difference that one is a military food and the other religious?

  • You're spot-on about the two most common interpretations of the lembas. My answer about the accuracy of one interp over the other will be extremely unhelpful: my answer is "both and neither." The question is something of a false binary. On one hand, lembas are their own thing. Plotwise, it's a convenient way of explaining how Frodo and Sam feed themselves in Mordor. On the other hand, why can't lembas be both military hardtack and communion bread? Tolkien was a devout Catholic and a veteran, and he surely understood the parallels. In my view, in terms of criticism, I'd suggest that a writer be aware of the options ("both and neither") but maybe emphasize the interpretation that works best with their argument.

(2) What does the elves giving of the lembas bread signify about the relationship between the fellowship between the elves, dwarfs, hobbits, and humans?

  • Interesting question here. I suppose you could say that the lembas "sanctifies" the Fellowship. Galadriel has a clear parallel to the Mother Mary, and that whole episode is also the last truly peaceful interlude in LotR. Of course, that sanctifying really doesn't do much -- the Fellowship, which now lacks Gandalf, breaks up relatively quickly. It might suggest that the diversity of the Fellowship is authorially sanctioned even though, ultimately, the long-term viability of a group such as the Fellowship remains in doubt.

(3) Do you have any other theories regarding the significance of lembas bread?
  • Sadly, no. Food is one of those major literary topics that, alas, I've never been much interested in.