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Oddfits Authors CopiesMy friend Tiff’s novel The Oddfits (or the first in the series anyway) is out today! I was able to read it ahead of time on Kindle via my Amazon Prime membership, and I really enjoyed it! (and you can check out other early reviews on amazon, or if you want a summary of the good and the bad, check out her blog). Be warned, it is indeed a very Odd book (haha… OK, I’m not the first to say that…)–whether this is a taste that can be acquired or not I don’t know, but it is certainly not going to sit right with everyone, while others will love it–according to the reviews, some have loved it despite not having any idea what in the world they were reading…

Set in Singapore, the book follows Murgatroyd, son of a pair of not-really-the-best British parents, persecuted, to all appearances a bit “touched in the head,” but still a massive sweetie, really, and with something special (not in the derogatory figurative sense, despite my “touched” comment) about him that comes to fruition (just in the nick of time) over the course of the book. The book is heavy on local color, and I enjoyed the glimpses of “Singlish” throughout. TLDR: loved this book, you should definitely go out and buy it, but it is “weird” and I realize there are some Stucks (see the book for the reference) out there who may just not be into it. On to more in-depth notes…

While I dislike referencing Joseph Campbell (he’s not particularly in-favor in the academic circles I run in), this first book in the series is essentially a drawn-out dramatization of the Call to Adventure (first step on Campbell’s Heroic Journey). We do get to see the world of the adventure in question in this book, it’s just that the conflict in this volume centers around the main character’s discovery of his “specialness,” his initial rejection of the call to go away, and… well, I guess I shouldn’t spoil things too much…

I’m teaching a course in Other Worlds right now (though in Scandinavian literature, not SE Asian or Australian literature…), and one of my favorite things about this book is the nature of the other world in question. I think I would describe it (and the book as a whole) as a mixture of Wrinkle in Time (with the tesseracts, by which one can apparently interact in a very non-normal way with the space-time continuum simply by learning to perceive that continuum in a more all-encompassing way–or something like that…), Harry Potter (with the parallel world of special people, as well as the wish-fulfillment premise of “oh, I’m the one!”), and the absurdity and whimsy of a Roald Dahl novel–well, except this isn’t a children’s novel. It could probably pass for a YA novel (I think I may remember Tiff originally marketing it as such), but with a 25 year old protagonist, with (as far as I’ve seen) nothing explicitly noting this book as a YA novel, I take this as an adult fantasy novel written to those who miss the whimsical and surreal flavor of some of the best children’s lit. It feels like part homage, part satire–I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it, which, for me, is one of the reasons I like it. One reviewer (who did not like it, apparently) called it “miscategorized children’s lit,” and there will be others who have the same impression–it’s an intentional mish-mash, and those who don’t like mish-mash of this sort will probably not like this. Hm, maybe imagine all the influences (L’Engle, Rowling, Dahl) I mentioned above combined into a Wes Anderson film… except it’s a novel, not a film. But that may get across a bit of the impression the book gives, the artifice of the fiction laid bare and the characters (at times) larger-than-life caricatures. It’s part of the fun!

All this surreality and absurdity is carried by Tiff’s beautiful prose, which is well suited to this particular task. I’ve only gotten to read Tiff’s work the last few years, after knowing her… yeesh, I think a decade now (has it been so long?), but after reading a short story of hers (reviewed here a couple years back) and then a novel in progress (not the Oddfits) I have come to really enjoy this unique voice that she brings to her work–and which, again, fits perfectly with what she is doing here. My only complaint is that the editor seems to have nodded off at times–or gotten too engrossed in the story, more likely (or, since Amazon Crossing normally does translated lit, maybe they aren’t used to suggesting actual revisions)–as there are a few places (not many) where it felts like the wrong word was used (repulsion instead of revulsion) or where two sentences get a bit redundant as the later one repeats too much of the same information. Since this is such an unusual book already, I worry that anything like this will pull readers sitting on the fence out of the… um, field of the story (is that a consistent enough metaphor?) and send them off looking for greener pastures (but look back! This one is all nice and emeraldy!)–but I don’t know that this is any more an issue here than in any novel. I just have my short-story editing cap on still after finishing some writing of my own, and you tend to have to be much more nit-picky with that. And I’ll note that you find typos in any first edition of a book, and it’s not like I saw an unusual amount here (reading Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free right now and ran across the line “…which pretty much failed to revolutionize the world the way its investors had claimed it world.” I world find more if I had the time).

All in all, this is a very original bit of work, and I’m glad to see that there are many out there who are enjoying it–even (or especially?) those who just couldn’t figure out what the heck they were reading but couldn’t put it down anyway. Looking forward to reading the rest! And will try to get around to getting up reviews of novels by other friends of mine–my nieces loved Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief novels, and I’ve had a few other friends getting published whom I really ought to read…

Writing Prompts: Fiction

When you are writing and you decide to add a super-creepy-spooky scene in the woods at night to really freak out your protagonists… and you realize you are writing this in a frail cabin in a dark and spooky redwood forest late at night. Plus all the animals out there are making all sorts of creepy noises. :(Still plugging away at NaNoWriMo for the first time ever. Due to the fact that this is a super crazy time of year for me (when is it not, for those playing the adjunct-game in academia) I’m not expecting to finish this month (I’m closing in on 20,000 words, maybe ¼ of the way through my tentative outline, and I believe the official NaNoWriMo goal is 50,000 words), but I think I’ve got a good chance of finishing a super rough draft by early January. :)Also, the creepy-cabin theme comes into one of my poems from a few years back that you can still read at Ideomancer. So I decided to give NaNoWriMo a go last November–I knew ahead of time that there was no way I would finish anything, and it’s true, I’m still maybe 1/3 of the way through my story, but it’s been going well, even if I put it on hold lately to make sure I could finish a short story in time to submit to Tor.com before they closed for unsolicited submissions. As I was gearing up for the marathon I did some searching online for writing prompts, because I knew the key would be to somehow just keep writing (and not filler, but actual story–plus I know that I am more of a “gardener”, letting the story develop organically, than an architect). I wasn’t all that happy with what I saw, apart from a bit here or there, so I wrote up my own on a page of one of my art journals. I thought I’ve give my list here–and to clarify, this is not “what am I going to write about?” prompts, but “how do I get this story unstuck?” prompts. I believe these are all original, but it’s possible I grabbed one from someone else’s list or remembered something from years before (this was originally just notes to myself, which actually went missing for most of the time I was writing…). I’ve included all the “why, how” questions as a reminder to myself that a prompt isn’t just a cool gimmick, but that every part affects the whole, and vice versa. These were meant to help me with Trying out NaNoWriMo for the first time.  Way behind,  but I’m encouraged by how many days the text has just flowed. I do feel sorry for my computer when I am on a roll though-I tend to be very percussive in my typing. Doing lots of late night writing on weekends as well.my epic-ish/sword and sorcery-ish fantasy novel, but I think these prompts are pretty applicable across the board.Feel free to share your own writing prompts in the comments!

1) What more can we learn about a particular character’s desire or motivation? What triggers our new awareness of this? Will this play out in the plot, or will it involve explicitly telling the story of the character in question?

2) Ecological factor–Complication emerges, violently or subtly, from the environment. Not deus ex machina, but it doesn’t have to be a crisis either–can just make things more complex. What new issues/insights must be considered? Or is it just a straightforward obstacle? How does it transform the story world, the narrative? How do we become more aware of the environment as character, as an agent in the narrative, rather than just a static, taken-for-granted setting?

3) Breakdown–one character suffers a panic attack, shuts down, freaks out, something along those lines. Why? Where does this come from (in the plot or the backstory), and how does it complicate things from here?

4) Change in affections–a good relationship with one person sours, transferred to a new person–or any change in how one or more people feel about one or more people. What causes this? What misunderstandings, or maybe revelations, are involved? Does this resolve towards reconciliation or is this indicative or a new normal? Or do things continue to worsen?

5) New story goal–for everyone, or a particular character? Again, where does this come from, and how does it change things?

6) Injury/Illness–a bit like the ecological factor, in that it is something from “outside” the main players that disrupts things. Since I’m doing a travel narrative in a Migration Era-style world, this is pretty relevant.

7) Surprise gift–from a person or from the environment. How does it help? How does it complicate things? What is the reason for the gift?

8) Something missing–was it taken? Lost? What was it important for?

9) New Perspective–character(s) gain new perspective/awareness regarding their situation. From an event or a person? What changes?

As I’ve said before, Dayanna is by far the most qualified person in the universe to do a Viking themed coloring book. She’s a solid artist (her style is well suited for this sort of thing) and as an academic (she’s an archaeologist, and so much better qualified than myself for representing the material culture of the Viking age). Really excited about this!

Viking Specialist at Large

As promised, Reader, my Kickstarter campaign was launched this morning [PST in case you were wondering]. Here is the link for it:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1382432732/the-viking-coloring-book/widget/card.html?v=2” target=”_blank”>Viking Coloring Book Kickstarter

PLEASE HELP SPREAD THE WORD AND SHARE THIS POST!!!

grubenhaus and longhouse Current work in progress!

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Looking back at Solvorn from the Urnes stave church–the seter I hiked up to would in the hills to the left of the town (I think the tiny little bare patch you can see up next to the corner of the roof may be part of the pasture).

I’ve been putting off sharing my pictures from a Norwegian seter since August, so may as well make it my last post of 2015! As you may have noted in my August posts, I was able to scrape together some funding to visit Scandinavia this past summer–first time in Sweden in… maybe 7, 8 years, and first time in Norway since I was 15. I got to visit lots of awesome locations on this trip, relevant to my past research, my teaching, my favorite movies, or my family history, but one unexpected pleasure was finding that there was a seter (summer pasture, called a shieling in Scotland) right next to Solvorn, the town I stayed in when visiting the Urnes stave church (will have to post on that another time). I’ve got a professional interest in the seter, of course, but I’ve also been working the idea into some of the fiction I’ve been writing the last few years (one story got honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest), so it was nice to visit one personally!

 

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I hiked from Solvorn up to the far end of the circle, before it continued on up the mountain.

The seter (Norwegian– säter in Swedish), is part of a tradition of transhumance in Norway and parts of Sweden (though not the parts my family is from, I believe). The seter/säter is basically summer pasture, or a summer dairy, run by women in Scandinavia (I believe the Scottish shieling is used by male shepherds, but I still hear the term used in connection with the Scandinavian phenomenon). A summer dairy could be run by an older woman, or, going by the legend tradition that I’m familiar with, you could have just unmarried girls running the summer pasture. Some places might have a distinction between närfäbodar (pastures closer to hand where the cattle are first moved) and långfäbodar (where they are moved later in the summer–see the Swedish wikipedia entry for fäbod for this

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Gudbrandsdal, where Peer Gynt takes place–the seter would have been further up in the mountains.

info), and while some locations may have the seter nearby (I got a bit lost, but I think you can make it to the seter from Solvorn in 1-2 hours) there are others where (I believe) you might have to hike a good part of the day to get there–I imagine it goes even longer with the cattle. If you’ve read Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (you probably haven’t–it’s pretty different from his A Doll’s House, but a fascinating read), you might remember the three seter girls he encounters early in the play, who are crying out for the trolls living nearby to keep them company (a bit euphemistic here–Peer stays with them instead, and we catch a glimpse of the anxiety over sexually mature yet unattached young women staying alone out in the wild that we see in the legend tradition).

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The first cow I encountered–right around where the trail runs into the lower end of the loop (the higher end was where the seter buildings were, so I imagine this was the start of the summer pasture here). When I came back down this way there were four or five cows lying around, completely blocking the path, so I had to clamber down through the brush, then back up to the path again. A city boy like me just doesn’t know what to do with these ferocious beasts…

My knowledge of the seter/säter is mostly limited to some of the ways it shows up in Scandinavian Folklore (a course I took with John Lindow when I started grad school at Berkeley back in 2002-3, and which I later got to teach as a lecturer in 2010), and I’ve never pursued the topic in my own research, just in my teaching, but I’ve been interested in it since I first heard of it. In the legend tradition I am most familiar with the story is usually one of a failed abduction–a young woman, engaged but not yet married, is alone at the seter with her dog. A cute guy from the huldre folk/hidden folk/underjordiska (the under-earthers)/elves/trolls/etc stops by and starts wooing her–potentially a very attractive offer, as there were certainly legends out there about girls abducted by the hidden folk who later appear to their parents and tell them to stop searching because they’ve married the prince of the mountain or some such and are actually a lot better off now than they used to be.

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The first building I encountered up at the seter.

Of course in this story the girl is loyal to her fiance, but this other guy suddenly has all his hidden folk family and friends there and they are putting a bridal crown on her head and pretty much getting set for the I-dos, so she ties a ribbon around her dog and sends him running down the mountain for her fiance. And of course when her fiance sees the ribbon he knows something is up, so he rushes up the mountain, gun in hand, and when he sees the wedding going on he shoots a bullet over the wedding party (because, of course, you get power over the hidden folk when you pass iron/steel over them, duh), and they all scatter, and human boy and human girl live happily ever after, the end.

IMG_3885I’ll leave off more thorough analysis, but the narrative tradition surrounding the seter is obviously pretty preoccupied with young unmarried women and sex–some versions have outlaws visiting the girls instead of trolls, and I expect that in some versions the girl actually does marry the troll–and taking a cue from the cameo in Peer Gynt, I also expect there is bawdy folklore aplenty revolving around seter girls (not my specialty, so I don’t have much to say about that, sorry!). Folklorists have noted that the legend tradition often features threats at key points in the standard (local) human biography–in-between points, liminal moments, where someone is poised between two identities and is therefore vulnerable: the space between birth and christening is dangerous in changeling folklore, for example, and of course not being properly buried or given last rites at death can result in the dead walking again–the liminality of the living dead is right there in the name. For young men and women just reaching sexual maturity, the threat is–you guessed it. SEX. In the version of the story I gave above we see her liminality emphasized in her engaged status–pledged to be married, so not “single”, but not yet married. No longer a child, not yet an adult. Legends (as opposed to more explicitly fictional and escapist fairy tales) tend to be told by the farming class–maybe still poor, but nevertheless with a bit more of a stake in the status quo than the rural proletariat (those who tend to tell fairy tales, according to folklorist Bengt Holbek). Given this we shouldn’t be surprised to see the legend tradition expressing anxiety over these eligible and unattached young women out in the wilderness–lots of potential for transgression there. And of course, lots of potential for titillation on the other hand. Early folklore collectors tended to keep bawdier material out of circulation, but their informants were not necessarily so shy.

I didn’t actually hear about the seter first at Berkeley–during an undergraduate semester abroad in Lund, Sweden I took a course in Scandinavian Music history which began with the kulning, a traditional way of singing (or of herd-calls, however you want to think of it) that girls at the seter would use. You can see a nice traditional version here, and here you can see what a contemporary composer has done with the art. It’s a bit harsh at first, but it didn’t take too long for me to fall in love with it–haunting.

Below are more of my pictures (two sets) from the hike up to the seter and the seter itself. Enjoy!

 

2015 Wrap Up

Source: 2015 Wrap Up

Dayanna is an awesome scholar, illustrator, and friend, so I’m super excited to see her working on this project! I’ve thought of putting together a coloring book myself, but whether or not that ever happens Dayanna’s style and expertise (she’s archaeology, I’m literature) are way better suited for this than I am.

The saga of Gisli is one of those I’ve taught most often over the years–it’s short, it’s got a (for modern readers) relatively unified narrative for a saga, and it’s a murder mystery, giving us at least one easy point-of-entry for those less used to discussing literature.

There are at least a couple recent (ie, last few decades) translations that are worth picking up (stay away from the free translations online, unless you really can’t find anything else–those come from well-intentioned translators of 100+ years ago who felt like the Norse material would gain better acceptance in the greater Western canon if it sounded “old-timey”–which is why the Thor comic books, and now the movies, are full of all the faux-Shakespearian crap), but to get your appetite whetted I present this short documentary about the location of the saga from my friend Emily Lethbridge, whose Icelandic saga travelogue I believe I’ve blogged about before (probably way back in 2011 or 2012):

Memories Of Old Awake from Cambridge University on Vimeo.

Also check out the Icelandic Saga Map project that Emily is working on.

I recommend watching this documentary, then reading the saga (and yes, some bits will be more difficult to get through than others–there is some overlap in terms of what contemporary readers find intriguing and what Medieval Icelanders found intriguing in their stories, but there are some gaps as well), then watching the kinda cheesy but still pretty awesome 70s movie about the saga–the soundtrack and action scenes leave something to be desired, but from my limited understanding (as a literary scholar rather than an archaeologist), this movie is the closest representation of what it would have looked like at the time compared to any other Viking movie I’ve seen–fill your imagination with this, rather than the usual Hollywood crud. But OK, you can choose a more varied soundtrack if you want…

Also, if someone knows a way to get an english subbed copy of this movie in the US, please let me know–the library copy at my current department is almost as bad as this youtube version, and I’d rather point people towards copies they can buy rather than youtube. :/

 

I love it when “literary” authors dip their toes (or better yet, dive in head-first) into the world of more fantastic or science-fictional literature. Sure, they sometimes get accused of “slumming” (as Ursula LeGuin apparently suggested could be the case, depending how how Ishiguro framed his new novel–from what I hear, she has retracted this comment), but that’s more a matter of how they represent their relationship to genre fiction–as for me, I just love seeing someone do something new with this particular toolbox. Those unused to the genre may still fall prey to tired iterations of the formulae of fantasy and sci-fi, but they at least tend to do it in very different ways than the usual “ghetto” authors (and sorry for still using that ghetto metaphor–I’m starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with it, but I haven’t hit on another yet), and at best these authors are a bit more conscious than their genre-peers of the particular potential of the fantastic or science-fictional mode for their topic.

WP_20151026_15_53_44_ProGiven all this, I was excited to run across Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. While I hadn’t yet read anything by him, I knew that he is most famous for his novel The Remains of the Day (maybe more famous as the movie) and thought it would be interesting to see what he was doing in this corner of the literary world. Apparently a couple of his other novels have edged towards the fantastic, one being read as magical realism by many critics and another as science fiction–more that I have to read now…

With The Buried Giant Ishiguro puts the fantastic, as well as the sense of the primordial and mythic that we associate with Arthurian and Anglo-Saxon England, to work in an exploration of memory and forgetting (two very intimately intertwined phenomena, as is often pointed out in memory studies within the humanities) at the level of both larger (ethnic) communities and individual relationships. The scene of the novel is post-Arthurian England, the land in a state of mysterious forgetfulness in the decades following the death of the King of the Britons, ogres roaming the countryside (though as a matter of course, rather than a special state of affairs), a giant buried beneath the landscape (how literal is this to be taken? though most of the other supernatural elements seem to clearly play out just as much at the literal as at the symbolic level), a dragon sleeping in the mountains, whose role in the story I will let you discover for yourself. We start following the story through the eyes of the aged pair Axl and Beatrice, and their journey to find their son is the central quest, even if it gets caught up in a much grander quest. Stereotypical fantasy “grandness” is avoided, however–there is plenty of blood, but you don’t leave a fight scene feeling like Conan the Barbarian, covered in blood and glorying in it. Certainly for duels (there are at least a couple) you leave feeling that a real person has died, not a cardboard enemy, and even the monster fights have a satisfying anti-climatic quality, a quickness in the moment of death that actually leaves more room for death in the narrative than a hack-n-slash would. Sword and Sorcery fans may find the pace unbearable, as the narrative follows a different rhythm than stories built around extended knots of action (well, there is action here, but it hardly holds itself in focus in the way many fantasy readers would want), but the novel builds its own tension as the couple’s journey towards memory and mortality and the reader’s increasing awareness of the forgotten backstory to this cursed world build chapter after chapter. In many ways it is a gentle and melancholy narrative, but by the end it is also full of terror (well, resigned terror, or horror is maybe the better word here…)–with a glimpse of hope too, maybe, but I’m not sure we can leave the final chapter in the most optimistic of moods. But yeah, spoiler alert–definitely got teary with the final chapter (but hey, I’m a sap).

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A very quick sketch from the half-remembered setting of one of the climatic scenes… May need to redo this one, haha…

I don’t want to get more specific because I personally really enjoyed piecing together the world and narrative as I inched along, but feel free to check out Neil Gaiman’s review for more details. Neil doesn’t sound especially enthusiastic about the novel here, but I would still recommend checking it out, as long as you can handle fantasy that doesn’t feel like your usual pulp epic. As someone who has done a bit of work in Cultural Memory studies, I enjoyed the treatment of memory from various angles, and especially the way the “novum” (if we can apply Suvin’s term to fantasy) allowed us to stage a particular ethical conundrum in a very concrete way–something which would have been lost had Ishiguro written this in post-WWII France or elsewhere, as I understand he considered doing. Be sure to check out Neil Gaiman’s interview with Ishiguro, as the two of them get into a very productive and engaging discussion of the issue of genre when it comes to “literary” fiction and fantasy (just keep in mind that it is an informal interview, not a rigorous dissertation). For more background to Ishiguro’s writing of the novel, check out this review. For a more negative review, there is this one. I can sympathize with some this reviewer’s points, but I think I’m just more willing to take it for what it is (and more interested in fantasy of any sort, and with no real horizon of expectations for Kazuo Ishiguro’s work)–I say enjoy the fable-like quality, the awkwardness of doddering old folks as protagonists, the “Monty Python but not funny” pitifulness of the knight who gets caught up in it all (or rather, always has been caught up in it all)–but you know, if you just can’t enjoy those things, that’s fair. I enjoyed it, but don’t know yet whether this will be a “reread until I die” book or not (to be fair, there are a lot of books on that list–and many that aren’t on that list even if they are better than most of those on the list…). And again, I am a particular fan of quirky or unusual entries into the corpus of fantastic literature, so I’m a bit predisposed to find this book engaging.

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