Tuesday, May 10, 2011

To share or not to share...

I have defended fanfiction before at this blog, and ultimately, my defense is 1. All fiction is fanfiction in some way shape or form, 2. Fanfiction can be used as creative criticism, 3. Some people just aren't creative enough to come up with new characters, but they like expanding on old ones.

The question is... is this a good enough defense to share my fanfic with my mom?

Like this... I am genuinely proud of this story: Operating System
I'm proud of the organization, and the ideas and the writing I don't think it's perfect, but I'm satisfied with it. But if I showed it to my mom and she thought it was stupid, it would be... too sad, I think. But it feels weird to have something I just can't bring myself to share, not because I think it's wrong, but because I want my mom to like it.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why doesn't it sound as clever when I say it?

A quotation of Cabin Pressure:

Martin: It seems the cargo hold heating may not have been turned on.
Douglas: Masterly use of the passive voice.

Now, when the passive voice comes up in class, first I have to explain what the passive voice is (as grammar isn't taught anymore, apparently), next I explain why it is often not a good idea to use it, and finally (not being an 18th century prescriptivist) I explain that there are sometimes very good reasons to use the passive voice.

By the time I try to explain these good reasons, my class is asleep.

Perhaps I could just play them the radio episode?

"But writing-powers-that-be, playing this show for them is TOTALLY justified. Not only did they learn about the passive voice, they heard references to Moby Dick...and learned how airplanes fly right side up!"

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A (somewhat incoherent) politically incorrect rant

So, I am going to be politically incorrect. Don't like, don't read. :-)

I strongly object to Disney's Pocahontas as nonsensical historical revisionism. (It's also boring--and I love Disney in general--but that is a different matter altogether.) I mean, there is not much to say on that score. It's just pretty way off historically.

Now that, you may say, is not a rant. Just wait!

I was listening to my Disney's greatest hits CD (You are allowed to like opera and Disney, thank you very much) and something about "Just around the riverbend" struck me for the first time. The first line is "What I like most about rivers is you can't step in the same river twice."


Question: Who said "you cannot step into the same river twice"?

Answer: Heraclitus of Ephesus, 500ish BC

Now, this annoys me very much. It mildly annoyed me when I first noticed, because the film is anti-Western and all about how the stupid British came in and killed the pristine native American culture with their greedy ways, and the philosophy beginning the song was imported from Western philosophy. And then I started to think about it more.

I don't have a problem with criticizing the early settlers. Not at all. I do think there were atrocities committed. Note that they were committed on both sides, and I get mad when I read things justifying King Philip's war, and laying all the blame there on the side of the colonists. (and I did read that once...can't remember where...but it made us VERY displeased, precious.) I would also criticize the West because we knew better (and I'm sure that makes me paternalistic, but I'll deal). But this is the thing: we criticize ourselves NOW because in some ways practice has caught up to the philosophy/religion in the west, and we have decided that we should not have killed people for our lands, and that we should not have enslaved people. That is, it is Western philosphy that creates the guilt for what we did. (It's also Western culture that gives us "the noble savage" which is the central trope of Disney's Pocahontas, btw)

So what is this rambling rant against--it's against using our Western heritage to create a ridiculously unhistorical propagandistic children's film that completely pans the west.

And really, why would we do that? I tend to think that we made mistakes--big mistakes--and now we see them. But history has happened. We need to learn from history, not ditch an over-idealized view of our past only to set up an over-idealized view of those we wronged in the past. That isn't useful at all.

Anyway, I guess I didn't really go anywhere special. But I was thinking about it, and figured it could raise interesting discussion.

Hey, at least I didn't go off on my The Night at the Museum is evil rant. You should be glad.

And to end this on a cheerful note, the next song on my Disney CD is "The Circle of Life," which reminds me of THIS:


Wednesday, October 13, 2010


John: So why do you put up with him?
Lestrade: Because I'm desperate, that's why. And because Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day, if we're very lucky, he might even be a good one.
--Sherlock, Episode One, "A Study in Pink."

If you know me and have had any sort of conversation with me in the past few weeks, you have probably heard me mention the BBC television show, Sherlock, a modern day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. It was in the works, as far as I am aware, for quite a while. I certainly knew that it was being made and that Martin Freeman would play Watson before I left for grad school in August 2009--possibly even a year before that.

Let me just get this out of the way, before I actually review. Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes is GORGEOUS. (Can't believe I didn't notice him so much in Amazing Grace...but then, 18th C. wigs aren't particularly flattering, and Ioan Gruffud (sp? I can say it, but can't spell it) outshone him.) Yes, Martin Freeman as John Watson is ADORABLE, and very Sam Gamgee-ish. (So many Sam Gamgee moments!) I admit it. But let us move on.

What I'm interested in is what I see as one of the most important of the themes that run through the show, and which I think is encapsulated in the quotation at the head of this post. But to discuss what is interesting about it, we need to go back to Arthur Conan Doyle's work.

The Sherlock Holmes stories are (almost) all narrated by Dr. John Watson, an army doctor who was invalided out during the Anglo-Afgan war. Watson admires Holmes to no end. He is occasionally put off by/makes reference to Holmes's exasperating vanity and incredible pride, but in general he sees Holmes, as Holmes seems to see himself--a super-humanly intelligent and all-around awesome dude. His interest in Holmes and Holmes's work originally seems to stem from boredom, but quickly turns into single-minded hero worship. (Now, I am overstating the case a bit. I am making Watson seem more like the Nigel Bruce bumbler than he actually is. But at times he almost portrays himself as such, and we have to read between the lines to see that he isn't.)

I think that Holmes and Watson have a great friendship, and that's what draws me to the books (rather than the mysteries themselves) but it is Watson's devotion to Holmes, rather than Holmes's to Watson that makes it memorable. There is one very special moment in "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" in which we do get a glimpse of Holmes's affection for Watson. It makes every fangirl's heart go pitter patter. Here it is in full.

The scene: Holmes and Watson are waiting for an American gunslinger [must write about America as "the other" in Victorian fic some time. A very amusing topic, in my opinion] named "Killer Evans." Evans walks into the room where they are hiding:

Clearly our moment had come. Holmes touched my wrist as a signal, and together we stole across to the open trap-door. Gently as we moved, however, the old floor must have creaked under our feet, for the head of our American, peering anxiously round, emerged suddenly from the open space. His face turned upon us with a glare of baffled rage, which gradually softened into a rather shamefaced grin as he realized that two pistols were pointed at his head.

"Well, well!" said he coolly as he scrambled to the surface. "I guess you have been one too many for me, Mr. Holmes. Saw through my game, I suppose, and played me for a sucker from the first. Well, sir, I hand it to you; you have me beat and..."

In an instant he had whisked out a revolver from his breast and had fired two shots.

I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes's pistol came down on the man's head. I had a vision of him sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend's wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"

It was worth a wound--it was worth many wounds--to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

"It's nothing, Holmes. It's a mere scratch."

He had ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.

"You are right," he cried with an immense sigh of relief. "It is quite superficial." His face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner, who was sitting up with a dazed face. "By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?"

I have found this moment to be fascinating ever since I entered the world of Holmes and Watson. It is of course an "awwwwwww! Holmes cares!" moment. But it is more than that. One of my pet topics is the cost of friendship, which goes back to the *cough* Rankin/Bass Return of the King. *cough*...

In that masterpiece of 80s cinema, which I may or may not have written a whole post on a year or so ago, there is a song that says "If you never say hello, you won't have to say goodbye." And that line, in connection with the sadness of Frodo leaving has meant a lot to me. I suppose by now I could be more sophisticated and quote "Shadowlands" (not C.S. Lewis--a misattribution as far as I can tell): "The pain then, is part of the happiness now. That's the deal."
But however you want to put it, love makes you vulnerable because you will experience loss eventually. In fact, one real Lewis quotation, from The Four Loves, because it is such a great one (and then I don't have to feel too bad about the Rankin/Bass quotation):

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

This may be fangirl heresy, but I will dare to say that Conan Doyle's Holmes really did wrap his heart around with hobbies and little luxuries. He did his best to lock it up safe in the casket of his selfishness. He did not completely succeed, but if Holmes's life is not characterized by selfishness, I don't know what is. I'm glad he had hidden some love for Watson deep down inside--Watson earned it. But I am afraid that as readers we have to at least ask ourselves if Holmes's facade of indifference does not go more than skin deep. (See also his behavior in "The Empty House" and "The Dying Detective.")

I find it very sad and pathetic that all of Watson's relationship with Holmes leads up to that one moment where for an instant he sees that Holmes actually cares. But Watson doesn't seem to feel that way. He just accepts Holmes as a great man, and while he is made incredibly happy by this tiny moment of humanity, he doesn't really quesition Holmes's goodness. Greatness is enough.

Now, I said this was a review of the BBC show, Sherlock, and it is. And I've finally gotten back around to it. :-)

John, as portrayed by Martin Freeman, is very much the Watson we know and love. He is awestruck by Sherlock. Every time Sherlock makes some kind of deduction he says "That's incredible" or "that's amazing"--something to that effect. In fact, here is a really cute exchange where Sherlock is rattling off facts about a dead woman. John has peppered the conversation with little exclamations (Freeman is so good at making what could sound very silly or forced sound perfectly genuine):

John: That's fantastic!
Sherlock: Do you know you do that out loud?
John: Sorry, I'll shut up.
Sherlock: No, its...fine...

And as in the original books, Sherlock partly wants John around because he is so appreciative. At one point he says (speaking of a serial murderer) "That's the frailty of genius, John, it needs an audience." I don't think he's self-aware enough to know he's describing himself, but he is.

Unlike the books, however, the TV show brings the issue of Sherlock as a human being, not just a calculating machine, into the open. From the beginning, Sherlock's insensitivity due to his brilliance is highlighted. It's often funny--when the girl who has a crush on him asks him "would you like to have coffee?" He says "Yes please. Black. Two Sugars. I'll be in the lab."--but it keeps coming back, and even as the first episode progresses becomes more serious. The victim had scratched the name "Rachel" onto the floor while she was dying. The detectives found out that "Rachel" was her daugher, who had been still born fourteen years earlier. Sherlock has been thinking out loud, and John suggests that the murderer (who somehow forced the victim to self-administer poison) used her daughter against her somehow. Sherlock says, "But that was ages ago! Why would she still be upset?" and the whole room goes quiet. Sherlock realizes he messed up from their reactions. And as an audience member, I don't think you despise him for it. John sets him straight, but you (along with John at that moment) feel more pity for the Sherlock who cannnot feel, than you feel disgust at the Sherlock who does not feel.

At the end of that episode, Sherlock risks not stopping the serial killer in his desire to prove himself right, and it is John who saves him.

As the second episode progresses and the third begins, it is becoming evident that Sherlock may be more capable of emotion than he lets on. Or rather, that John expects him to show emotion and to feel, regardless of his professed inability to do so. John becomes more vocal about pointing out to Sherlock when he is being mean or insensitive, and he continually asks him to think about the victims in the case as if they were people.

Moriarty is holding people hostage for set periods of time, while Sherlock has to figure out the mysteries Moriarty sends to him before the time runs out or the hostages (who are strapped to bomb) are exploded, usually in a densely populated area. While John is still amazed by Sherlock's powers of deduction, he is clearly personally offended, as well as offended on principle, by Sherlock's careless attitude towards human life in favor of his obsession with facts and proving himself more intelligent than Moriarty. John reaches a breaking point after an old woman (along with many people in her apartment complex) is killed, and Sherlock is only fascinated by Moriarty's evil genius:

John: So why is he doing this, then? Playing this game with you? Do you think he wants to be caught?
Sherlock: I think he wants to be distracted
John: I hope you'll be very happy together
Sherlock: Sorry. What?
John: There are LIVES at stake, Sherlock, actual human lives! Just so I know, do you care about that at all?
Sherlock: Will caring about them help save them?
John: Nope.
Sherlock: Then I'll continue not to make that mistake.
John: And you find that easy, do you?
Sherlock: Yes. Very...Is that news to you?
John: No...no
Sherlock: I've disappointed you.
John: Good! That's a good deduction. Yeah.
Sherlock: Don't make people into heroes, John. Heroes don't exist, and if they did, I wouldn't be one of them.

But Sherlock's nonchalance about human life is challenged, when suddenly the man strapped to the bomb is John. (Another brilliant acting job. Cumberbatch somehow manages to portray Sherlock's sudden fear and vulnerability, while preserving the mask of self-confidence towards Moriarty. That's not a good description...you have to see it...but then you should probably watch it before reading this anyway...) His only friend is in mortal peril, and he is confronted with his brilliantly evil enemy, and he starts to see things John's way:

Jim Moriarty: I have loved this--this little game of ours...Playing Jim from IT...Playing gay...Did you like the little touch with the underwear?
Sherlock: People have died.
Jim Moriarty: That's what people DO!
Sherlock: I will stop you.

This was Sherlock at the beginning of the episode:

John: Try and remember there's a woman who might die.
Sherlock: What for? This hospital's full of people dying, doctor. Why don't you go cry by their bedsides. See what good it does them.

Can you spot the difference?

I end this rambly review-ish thing with another observation.

At the end of "A Study in Pink," Sherlock is about to take the pill. He is compelled to eat it, because he needs the rush to stave off the boredom of living as a genius among lesser mortals. He has been goaded into it by the serial killer cabbie who taunts him with the possibility that he has been outwitted. He is facing possible death. And his hand shakes.

At the end of "The Great Game," Sherlock has his gun trained on the explosives near Moriarty. He is ready to blow up himself and John because it seems they are doomed, and he needs to take Moriarty out as well. He has looked to John, and received a short nod of approval for the action he is about to take. He is facing almost certain death. And his hand is perfectly still.

Now I can only wait for the next season (Fall 2011!?!?!? WHAT?!?!!?!) to see what happens. Will they be saved in a Mycroft ex Machina? Or will we have a Reichenberg Falls-esque opening, with John in the hospital and Sherlock assumed dead? However the screenwriters write everyone out that sticky situation, my main interest is Sherlock's character. Was this just a crack in the facade, as in "The Three Garridebs"? or has Sherlock changed from just a great man, to a good one?

Henry V

"O for a muse of fire!"

I begin my book reviewing project with Shakespeare's Henry V. As this review will show, I will be giving more stream-of-consciousness rambles than anything else, but whatever...

Henry V, I must start out by saying, is an incredible collection of speeches. We all know and love the St. Crispian's day speech which includes "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." Any of us who are Sherlock Holmes fans know the "Once more unto the breach" speech that concludes, "The game's afoot! / Follow your spirits, and upon this charge / Cry God for England, Harry, and St George!" Henry can inspire soldiers like no other. But then, he can make you want to cry. His speech to Lord Scroop, an ex-best friend, who is involved in an aassasination plot against him is so tragic: "I will weep for thee, / For this revolt of thine, methinks, / is like a second fall of man." *sniff* He can get spitting mad: "Tell the pleasant Dauphin..." He can even put on the charming, bumbling lover if it suits his purpose. (See his speech to Catherine--his only significant non-verse speech in the play.

My mother has always taught Henry V by convincing the students that Henry is a lying politician, and I always promised myself that I would not teach it that way...for no very good reason. Mostly to be different from my mother, I guess. But when I read it to teach, I was really struck by how much acting there is in the play. It emphasizes its play-ness in a way that very few, if any, of Shakespeare's works do.

Take, for example, the Chorus. There is no other Shakespeare play with a chorus. This in itself emphasizes that it is a play. While I grant that in Shakespeare's day, everyone's favorite Romantic opium addict had not coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief," you have to ask yourself what the Chorus is talking about if not willing suspension of disbelief. He begs the audience to imagine that the stage really is the field of Agincourt, and the handful of men on the stage really are thousands of soldiers. This, as one student pointed out in discussion, is a good way to pull the audience into the story. But at the same time, it highlights the artificiality of the whole thing. If you had finally immersed yourself in the story to such an extent that you were able to imagine you really saw Agincourt, the Chorus getting up and saying, "I'm so sorry this is so lame, please try to forget it" will make you remember that it is pretty lame.

I have to share a related point that one of my students came out with, and that I thought was utterly brilliant! We were close reading one of Henry's inspirational speeches in class, where Henry tells his men that in peace, modesty is best, but now you need to act tough. He uses a lot of words like "disguise" and "act." He tells them to "put on" the tiger. Not only does he put on different personas himself, he asks his soldiers to do as much. My student said, "I think that Shakspeare is showing how life is like a play." It was brilliant. It doesn't sound so brilliant the way I just put it, but it is such an interesting way to look at Henry V. Shakespeare clearly finds that an interesting idea. See Jacques in As you like it. "All the world's a stage, and the men and women are merely the players . All have their exits and their entrances." And Shakespeare definitely makes snarky allusions to play/reality issues. E.g. Hamlet: "Seems, Mother? Nay I know not seems. It is not alone my inky cloak, mother, or windy suspiration of the breath, or tear in the eye. These are but things a man might play. But I have that within that passes show. These trappings but an outward sign of woe." (I totally butchered that...oh well.) But Henry V is a very interesting case study of how life is like a play.

Which rambles me back to my mom's point about Henry being a consummate politician, and maybe not such a hero to be idolized. Frankly, I don't know whether she'd agree with this or not, but I am inclined to think that Henry is portrayed as an actor, acting out many roles, but that's not a bad thing. It's what we all have to do in this world. As I said to my students, when I'm in front of them, I'm a teacher. When I'm in class, I'm a student. I have to act like a different person in each case. And in neither case should certain personal things come into play. As I learned over the past few weeks, in a class situation you do have to "smile when your heart is breaking" if you're the one in charge. Because what's going on in your life behind the scenes has no bearing on the class. At all. The end. It made me much more sympathetic to Henry, who in front of his men was was all "RA RA! We'll WIN YAY! FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!" but when alone was on his knees, begging God not to punish him for his father's sins, and not to allow his Soldiers to be frightened in war. He actually asks God to blind them to the truth of the situation--that they are outnumbered and likely to die--so that they can fight like men. Henry, in my estimation, is being perfectly sincere and honest in his prayer, and he doesn't mind asking God to help his men play a role. I dunno, maybe it's just me, but I think Henry is a great actor, and that is part of what makes him a great man. Do I think he's perfect, and do I like him unqualifiedly? No. But I think he is overall a good man who does what he has to in order to be a good king.

There is much more tha could be said on both sides. but I will stop there.

One final thought: Ken Branagh's Henry V is brilliant, in my estimation, because it captures the inconsistency, the foibles, and the actorliness of Henry, while also making him a good man. Olivier's version (which is well worth watching) makes Henry into a larger than life hero. The end. I prefer the more nuanced Henry.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The New "In Western Lands"

My blog has a new purpose. I will (being the original being that I am) use it to ramble on about the books I read. I may post other rambles as well, but I have decided that I like rambling about what I read, and I like blogging for some random reason. So, why not?

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Sonnet

"What pain it was to drown"

Beneath the winds and waves of stormy night
Lies water cold but peaceful, in which I,
Recoiling from the thought of any fight
Might lose my soul to deadly fantasy.

Both corpse and open coffer lie below
And sapphires shine where once were living eyes
But, poetry-beguiled, I do not know
That metaphors incarnate are vile lies.

My mind and senses numb, I reach to touch
A coronet of gold on weed-wreathed hair
I pry a scepter from a corpse’s clutch
And will not recognize my need for air.

So that I’ll seek the true, immortal crown,
Lord, let me feel what pain it is to drown.