Friday, March 30, 2018

Browsing through the Evangeline Walton papers

So, a while back, I realized that the U of A had the papers of Evangeline Walton, who spend the last 2/3 of her life in Tucson, and I thought, rather randomly, that someday I might use them for an article or some such. Well, the other day, I discovered the existence of a journal known as the The Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction, so I decided to take the plunge and see if anything interested me in those papers.

Alas, not muchthat I could find. There's a pretty lengthy correspondence from John Cowper Powys, with whom EW shared a strong interest in Celtic material, and a few letters from August Derleth of Arkham House (and publishing H. P. Lovecraft) fame. The rest of the materials were manuscripts for several of EW's novels.

I was really hoping that I could somehow tie EW to a writer whom I knew -- Tolkien after the 1950s, perhaps, or even the Greyhaven writers, a possibility I realized once I discovered that EW wrote the forward to Paul Edwin Zimmer's chapbook, Woman of the Elfmounds. (She also did a blurb for his second novel). Unless I was dedicated into reading into more of Powys,** though, there doesn't seem to be much I can use here.

**Random note, btw: apparently Cowys, who was sometimes called an atheist, told EW that he's really a polytheist -- a believer in God and the Goddess. That, of course, reminded me of the neo-paganism of the Greyhaven writers, but any connection there is probably too tenuous to delve into.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Getting free academic books . . . and giving them away again

So far, the strangest thing about being a reviews editor for Fafnir is how easy it is to get free books from publishers. You simply contact the publisher's publicity person, say, "Hey, I'm so-and-so, please give me this book for free," and by gum they send you the book. In fact, with about 18 books in the stockpile, not a single publisher has yet to tell me "no," which astonishes me greatly. I suppose they benefit from extra reviews (some academic libraries won't purchase a volume unless it's been reviewed), but still, I'm pleasantly surprised by the whole process.

Of course, the sad thing about getting all these free books is that I have to give them away again -- to the reviewers, of course. Cool fact, though: just found out that the U of A offers postage for books sent for academic purposes. That's quite a pleasant surprise as well. 

All in all, I'm loving the new position. I really missed editing Scientia et Humanitas, but this is so much more awesome -- and it's an immense help with realizing all the new SFF books being published by various presses.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Teaching Adventures

So, all my classes have major projects due on Wednesday, and so I had over 2 1/2 hours of discussion during office hours today. The last student was particularly having troubles with his literature review. We got through basic information like thesis and stuff, but he was stumped when it came to the author's methodology and evidence. I told him to work on it and we'd discuss what he found.

And you know what he found? He found a "peer reviewed" predatory journal article written --and, apparently, edited by -- non-native English speakers. He was confused by everything in the piece, so when I myself read the abstract, I instantly recognized that this was pay-for-publication journal and a complete load of crap. Of course, I didn't make the student get a new source (it was clearly marked "peer reviewed" in our library database), but I certainly never had a student encounter this problem before!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Day 2: ICFA 2018 . . . and terror.

Day 2 was a little more eventful than Day 1. The first panel had two papers on George R. R. Martin, which was nice, and my second panel was chaired by yours truly. All three presenters were doctoral students who did a fantastic job offering feminist readings of fantasy texts. One of the books discussed was actually Jean Rhys's Wide Saragossa Sea, which isn't really a fantasy novel except that it talks about zombieism, and the other two books were Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls and Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons. I had high hopes of reading all three novels before ICFA began but, alas, only managed to get 80% of the way through Paladin of Souls. Still, the post-presentation discussion went great. Huzzah!

And then . . . 

And then -- then came my presentation on Stephen R. Donaldson's "Reave the Just." For months, a looming terror has filled my gut that SRD himself would actually appear, since I know he tends to be an ICFA regular . . . and, sure enough, he did. Honestly, I've given dozens of presentations, but never was I so nervous. As Bill Senior was giving his paper, my heart must've been going 110 bpm as I awaited my turn.

My paper was well-received, I think. There were several very complimentary remarks on Donaldson's (I am a fan, after all), and I didn't get too much push-back from my critiques of "Reave the Just."*** Mostly, the comments centered on a few helpful close-reading points that could have been additionally brought to bear -- nothing, intriguingly enough, on the larger idea of gender violence which was my presentation's subject. Overall, Martina assured me that I didn't embarrass myself.

Afterward, SRD himself spoke with me, and I must confess that that terrified me as well. Seriously, I haven't felt like such a 12-year-old since I actually was twelve. But Donaldson thanked me for discussing the feminism in his work, which has been a much neglected aspect in the secondary literature. He even gave me his business card (!) in case I continued working along these lines. Martina, who's also spent most of her life in academia, says I absolutely should contact him, but it seems so odd to me, writers and literary critics mixing.

Incidentally, the Great Author Himself wasn't the only terrifying personage present. Bill Senior is responsible for the best monograph on Donaldson to date, the first academic book I ever read for fun (back when I was an undergraduate at Kent State), and Senior's resume is further rounded out by stints as editor in chief of Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and president of IAFA. Now, as you might imagine, I'm not a shrinking violet when it comes to academics, but my immediate impression of Dr. Senior was of an eagle-eyed close reader with extraordinarily high expectations. The first words I heard him speak were a remark to a colleague who'd asked about someone's paper. Said Senior, "She needed to cut out the first three pages. But the rest of the paper was fine. Donna Haraway did the same thing a few years ago -- a fantastic presentation preceded by an absolutely useless 15-minute review of the secondary literature." Daaamn. I also recognized C. W. Sullivan as present.

After that, as you might imagine, I was absolutely knackered. Martina and I went out to dinner -- I even waved to SRD as we were leaving the hotel. But then a further moment of terror transpired as, on our way to one of the local restaurants, we saw SRD and a group of scholars heading into the same general direction; they must have taken a short cut. I hope no one blames me if I describe how Martina and I immediately turned around and went the opposite direction -- it would have been just too awkward to wind up eating in the same place!

*** From interviews and previous commentary on the interwebz, I've gotten the impression that SRD is one of those ideals writers who, while highly interested the criticism produced on his work, nonetheless is quite willing to let all readers, critics and non-critics alike, interpret as they please.

Friday, March 16, 2018

DAY 1: ICFA 2018

Day 1 was intense -- four panels attended, and lots of interesting ideas heard. What's intriguing this year (as opposed to last) is how many papers are sticking to the conference theme of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is celebrating it's 200th anniversary this year. There's around 2 panels devoted to her in nearly every time slot. What else is intriguing is how few presentations there are on fantasy fiction . . . a strange thing for a conference on the fantastic in the arts. Instead, there's a lot of science fiction, a lot of work on transmedia storytelling, and a lot of film and television criticism. While that's still all pretty important, however, it does mean that very few of the panels have been as directly related to my own research interests as the ones from last year. Last year, for example, there were a half dozen Tolkien papers, perhaps more, spread throughout the conference. This year there's only three, collected together in one panel.

Still, day 2 starts in less than an hour, and I pumped for it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Laid out -- but still currently productive

So, speaking as someone who never gets sick, the last week has been a health catastrophe. First, last Monday, Martina and I went hiking to Bear Canyon. Great trek, but I tripped and banged the hell out of my quadriceps. No visible bruise, though it felt like a bruise deep inside, and it took me four days until I got full flexibility back.

But, that evening, I started coming down with something. Then the next day, Tuesday, the coming down got worse. Before you knew it, I had the flu -- laid me out for a full six days, and I didn't start better until Saturday night. No major interruptions in my normal activity, though, although I stopped going to the gym that week. Otherwise, my academic work kept up.

Through Sunday and yesterday, there was 36 hours of good health. But, after finishing my final Monday class, I started getting the shivers really bad. I trudged along home, knowing that I had some herculean work efforts ahead of me. My ENGL 102 returned their lit review rough drafts that afternoon, but my plane for the ICFA 2018 left the next morning at 6:30 am, so I basically had to comment on 60 papers in about an 8 hour span.

I almost made it . . . but I had a flu relapse. Although I don't know if "relapse" is the right word, since it was basically a short nuclear burst of flu-activity. Chills, insanely high fever (I had to use cold compresses), splitting headache. I went to bed at 7 pm, snoozed off and on until midnight . . . when, strangely, all the aches and pains and fevers stopped, except some night sweats. So, basically, a 10-hour bug. No idea if it was part of the old flu or maybe even a new strain I'd inadvertently picked up somehow.

Anyway, though, I did manage to finish that commenting this morning, although the last of it occurred during out Los Angeles airport layover. Now I'm ready for an exciting, exciting week.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


Just finished Paul Kierney's wonderfully detailed The Ten Thousand (2008), a fantasy-ish re-telling of the Greek writer Xenophon's famous Anabasis. The book left me feeling ambivalent -- so here's the good and the bad.


(1) Beautiful writing. Really, truly lovely. The following is a description of the Greek mercenaries on the mark:
These watched, amazed, from the highest of the crumbling escarpments, as now a great rash spread over the desert, a river of men, dark under the sun save where the light caught around them, a tawny, leaning giant, a toiling yellow storm bent on blotting out the western sky. It seemed a nation on the march, a whole people set on migrating to a better place. The sparse inhabitants of the Gadinai drew together, old feuds forgotten, and watched in wonder as the great column poured steadily onward, as unstoppable as the course of the sun. It was as grand as some harbinger of the world's end, a spectacle even the gods must see from their places amid the stars. So this, then, was the passage of an army.
(2) Kierney did his research. Oh hells yeah, he did. This book basically counts as military fantasy, and it is the best description of phalanx fighting I have ever seen. I'm no expert in ancient Greek warfare, but I know enough to realize when a writer has gotten his details right -- and not only details, but also the strange combination of sheer terror and workmanlike ploddingness that marked phalanx fighting. His descriptions of battle are some of the best I've ever seen.


(A) Is this fantasy? Okay, this isn't really bad, but the book's only marginally fantasy. There's no magic, for one thing, the plot's realistic, and the only real "fantasy" element is the lightweight armor called the Curse of God worn by some of the soldiers. Also there's some weird creatures named Qaf who appear briefly near the end. To be honest, The Ten Thousand might have made more sense of as a historical novel than a fantasy novel. Because . . . 

(B) Kearney follows Xenophon's story really closely. The wikipedia summary said this book was "loosely based" on the Anabasis, but that's hogwash. Kearney invents the characters and individualizes their motivations, but he follows Xenophon's plot almost exactly. Which is fine -- unless you happen to be intimately familiar with the Anabasis, in which case there's no suspense or surprises in this book.

Plus, the Anabasis isn't a novel -- it tells of exciting events, but there's no sense (as in novels) of a single plotline following a single thematic thread. "Suspense" isn't really a feature of ancient literature, but one has really come to expect it in modern fantasy novels. Thus the re-telling doesn't translate entirely well.

In addition, there's some rather hollow attempts to widen the interest of the book -- Kearney invents a pretty typical woman character who can be rescued by the love of one of the mercenaries, for example. But, really, the prime interest of this novel is Kearney's fantastic descriptions of battle. That won't work for many readers, and it only worked for me up to a point.

END VERDICT: Glad I read it, but I won't be attempting the other two books in the series . . . unless I plan future research on battle descriptions.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Brandon Sanderson's MISTBORN Trilogy

I've been having a run of reading really good fantasy novels lately -- a side effect, I suppose, of not having kept up with much fantasy since starting college.*** My latest "discovery" is Brandon Sanderson and his Mistborn trilogy. Previously, I only knew him as the guy who completed the final three books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.***** I don't know why, but that somehow made me skeptical of the dude -- as if any writer willing to put his own work on hold to complete someone else's couldn't be a quality writer. So let me say now, "Man, that was a dumb idea."

Anyway, a couple of things to note about Sanderson.

(1) His metal-based magic system is really fun. Actually, my first thought was that it sounded like a video game's magic system -- clearly defined rules, able to do tons of cool things, complicated enough that it could motivate several kinds of plot, etc. 

But the series has much more depth than most video games. In particular: 

(2) More importantly, though, is just how smart the series is.

I remembering once reading a comment by Farah Mendlesohn complaining that, while fantasy often has great respect for The Book, it typically doesn't encourage critical thinking. That is to say, books in fantasy fiction are repositories of True Knowledge, not author-made constructions that must be queried, questioned, and examined. Well, I think the Mistborn trilogy might be the exception that proves the rule. Several important characters, including the Marcus Aurlius-like Elend, are scholars -- and scholarship is an amazing (and nearly impossible) value to incorporate in a trilogy as action-packed as Mistborn is. Nonetheless, Sanderson skillfully manages to show characters engaging in discussions in political theory, for example, without breaking up the pacing or descending into long chunks of philosophical rumination. 

(3) Also, this series is surprisingly religious -- but, however, without being as obvious about it as C.S. Lewis or Madelaine L'Engle. (Tolkien, of course, is the master of subtlety in this area.)

When I later looked up Sanderson's bio, it didn't surprise me that he was Mormon, although the religious sentiment he depicts in Mistborn is extremely non-denominational. In fact, just values like tolerance, non-dogmatism, and a bland affirmation of faith and trust in higher powers (even while simultaneously recognizing that most religions have almost nothing to do with the supernatural Other-wordly). 

All in all, I was strongly impressed by the Mistborn trilogy. I've now added more Sanderson to the reading queu.

*** Of course, I did keep up with a few writers -- Rowling, G.R.R. Martin, a few others. When I did find the leisure time to read fantasy, I usually concentrated on the classics -- not stuff written within the last two decades. Luckily, my post-grad school status has finally given me time to systematically wade through the best contemporary fantastists.
*****And I swear I'm going to read them . . . someday. I admit to getting fed up with Jordan somewhere around book 7 or 8.