musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser


January 11, 2009

Favorite things

I’m rereading a favorite book in a new form, and watching some old TV shows I’d forgotten were so good, so it’s been a week of favorites for me and I thought I’d share.

I’m also a little desperate for something to blog about, and I must be growing jaded, because my favorites are old, and sadly far too few.

Favorite Books:

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’m currently reading The Annotated Hobbit, an edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. I’m loving it, though I think most of the annotations will be something to enjoy on my second reading of this edition. It’s been so long since I read the story, that I find myself just sticking to the story and not reading footnotes (marginal notes in this case). But I did read the introduction, and immersed myself in some fascinating biographical and publishing history. Now and then my gaze veers into the margins and my curiosity is piqued.

I decided to read this story again because I’ve read that Peter Jackson is finally involved in a film adaptation of it, which I’ve looked forward to ever since the LOTR trilogy that he produced and directed. This time I want to view the film adaptation fresh from the written story, rather than from the perspective of more than a decade of fogging over of my memory as I did with the trilogy. Which means I’m reading it now and likely will read it at least once more before the film is released.

I’m also rereading this, and plan to reread LOTR, because the film trilogy has become a mini-obsession of mine and yet every time I watch the movies I keep thinking how much I want to read the books again.

Tolkien is easily my most favorite author, ever. I’d be hard pressed to name a second favorite who comes anywhere close. Maybe it was his relationship to language, as a philologist. He also had a deep, abiding love of the fairy story and ancient poems and songs. (Many of his dwarves’ names are borrowed from the Elder Edda.) I like that he was unapologetic about his errors. He didn’t try to hide them and, if it made sense he fixed them in later editions. If fixing them didn’t make sense, he lived with them without shame or excuse. He was still a teen when he began to create his own language, that of the elves that he used in his stories, incorporated so elegantly into the film version of LOTR a few years ago. Tolkien wrote circles around anyone else, and almost singlehandedly invented the modern fantasy genre. He seems to have recalled something both childlike and ancient, and filled it with something else profoundly basic to humanity, all of which make him seem himself to have been a wizard — of storytelling. Stories are his version of Gandalf’s fireworks, and even of Gandalf’s defeat of the Balrog and death. Tolkien is pretty much at the top of the mountain and well beyond compare, in my opinion. All the rest, even my other favorite authors, are still down there in base camp, wondering about the weather up there on high. Keeping in mind that when climbing the highest mountains in the world, just getting to base camp is something, nothing to sneeze at. Most of my favorite books that even come close to Tolkien’s, though, are older, the authors also long dead.

This makes me wonder if we’re ripe for a literary renaissance. And when I say literary, I mean a STORY renaissance. Preparatory to that, if Tolkien’s work isn’t now required reading in school, I think it should be. I would love to see a new generation fall in love with language and with story.

Favorite TV series:

Star Trek The Next Generation. There’s no comparison, and even viewing old dilapidated recordings of it compares favorably, in fact stunningly so, to most of what I see on TV today.

I was saddened to hear of the death last month of Majel Barrett, and I felt as if her death marked the end of an era (started by her husband, Gene Roddenberry) in science fiction and in television.

While watching old Star Trek TNG episodes, I can’t believe how often I have to reach for tissues because a story line touched me deeply, or I’m still amused by the always tasteful humor some 20 years later, or I’m struck dumb by a profound insight or bit of ageless wisdom. At the same time it’s immensely entertaining, and frequently filled with suspense. There’s nothing like it.

I have a second favorite TV series — actually two sister ones: Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Still, Star Trek the Next Generation is another top of the mountain favorite that is difficult to compare to anything. Who knows, Tolkien himself might even have loved it.

I like The Closer, mainly because the female lead is a character, someone I can relate to. She’s over thirty and still attractive, but it’s not in-your-face plasticized starlet attractiveness. Kyra Sedgwick is beautiful in a way that goes beyond starlet appeal, and you get the impression this is a woman who’s actually honest-to-god aging and struggling to maintain, rather than magically stopping time until the powers that be disappear her from TV as soon as she shows signs of (horrors!) appearing to be over forty. She holds her own in a man’s world without needing to act like a tough chick. She’s spunky and vulnerable, and she doesn’t have to show us the inside of the body as the bullet passes through it for cheap thrills, or make us help examine the vomit under a microscope or eat bugs (honestly, some TV cannot be viewed while enjoying dinner), or be right there for the bloodiest new surgical procedure of the century, spurting arteries and all. I need some mystique left in my mysteries, some characters I can relate to, and not to feel as if I have to learn how not to be squeamish along with the interns in my medical shows. I also wonder why there are so interminably many “realistic” detective and medical shows. Isn’t there anything else to write about, guys? Is the sitcom dead? I guess so.

I like Ghost Whisperer, though I’ve discovered it only recently, so we’ll see how that works out.

I liked Dead Zone, until they killed off Walt the sheriff. I thought he provided an important obstacle between Johnny and his former love, Sarah. Conflict in the form of strong romantic and other obstacles is critical to good series fiction, even a paranormal series that has a new problem to solve each episode. Without the core conflicts and tension to fall back on, a series falls flat because no one seems to be trying very hard, day to day. They’re just biding time until the next psychic flash, murder, ghost, mystery disease, or demon appears. A good series has several backup sources of tension. In Star Trek TNG, nearly every character has a known source of personal conflict that’s always simmering just under the surface, and the series as a whole is full of those tensions sometimes rising, and frequently interacting with others’ conflicts. Killing Walt off, in The Dead Zone, was like letting Marshall Dillon marry Miss Kitty, or letting The Fugitive catch the one-armed man. You just don’t do that, until the very last episode ever. The End.

All that said, I would be hard pressed to come up with new series or episodes from season to season and week to week as the best TV writers do.

Maybe we need a television renaissance as well as a literary one.

Barring that, we may need to let all the Marshall Dillons marry all the Miss Kittys in a big Sun Myung Moon style wedding — and then give TV one big funeral service and be done with it. Most of the shows are so lame, and the commercial breaks are so long these days, that I frequently leave the room to finish the dishes, make a snack, or check my email, and then lose interest and forget to return to see how the show ends. They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and television, as a whole, seems to be trying awfully hard to prove it.

Do you have any new/old favorites to share? What entertains you these days?

— Barbara @ rudimentary 9:34 pm PST, 01/11/09

July 9, 2007

Gloria Steinem proposes a new film genre label

Gloria Steinem: In Defense of the ‘Chick Flick’:

“I propose, as the opposite of “chick flick,” films called “prick flicks.” Not only will it serve film critics well, but its variants will add to the literary lexicon.” (read article)

Maybe the term “prick” is too strong. It’s not the word I would’ve chosen, yet it answers the fact that a lot of women are put off by the tone and expression, if not the word, used when we hear the term “chick flick.”

Steinem’s editorial reminds me of something that occurred in a “Modern Fantasy” literature class I took, back in the seventies, when Mary Stewart’s first two Merlin and Arthur novels, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, were recent bestsellers. One of the young men in the class was so taken with them, he asked what other books Mary Stewart had written. I told him she’d written mostly romantic suspense in the past. I had an entire collection of her books at home, older hardcover editions gleaned from thrift store shelves. I thought when he expressed an interest that here was another new fan. But when the young man heard the word “romantic,” he took on a look of utter distaste and lost interest.

Some female mystery novelists still publish today using their first and middle initials rather than their full first names, in order to stretch past that still-existent gender barrier in many male readers’ minds, a practice reminiscent of the Brontës publishing under masculine names. One would’ve hoped that by the time this century rolled around we’d have advanced further. I don’t have statistics on this, but I’ll hazard a guess that there are more women who read and write fiction containing a predominately masculine point of view than there are men who read or write fiction containing a predominately feminine point of view.

Yet I know women, myself included, who enjoy a good action film, of the type once considered a favorite of men. Why is it that women, both in their reading and writing, as well as in movie preferences, might more readily cross old gender barriers?

Mind you, many men do take an equal interest in less violent or less action-oriented movies and books, and I admire men who are open to genres and interests considered historically feminine. I also admire women who open up more to interests previously considered masculine. More women today are sports fans than ever before, and don’t restrict their interests, as I do, to figure skating. My lack of interest is mostly due to bad experiences in physical education classes — I was that awkward, non-athletic kid always picked last for the team. It has nothing to do with my admiration of any outstanding achievement, physical or otherwise, and I enjoy watching good sports-related movies.

What is it that continues to keep some men from enjoying what they term as “chick flicks?” Is it that they truly don’t enjoy more thoughtful, slower-moving, or less action-oriented stories, once they give them a chance? Or is there another reason? Is it adrenaline addiction? (Understandable, among men and women, in today’s world, though perhaps best not encouraged.) Is it fear of what their friends will think? I’m trying not to make assumptions here. I’d really like to know, especially as a female writer trying to sell my fiction.

We all have types of stories we don’t like, or even parts of movies we like that we could do without. I personally back away from anything about child abductions, gangster movies that are overly violent onscreen, comedies that resort to tasteless bathroom humor (bathrooms have doors for a reason), and horror with too much blood and gore added for shock value. As far as I’m concerned, vomit and excrement belong off-screen. There’s enough of them in real life, and they’re not entertaining. They’re certainly not the kind of realism I’m looking for in a story.

I can understand someone not liking romance, even though I usually enjoy it provided it’s not overly sappy. But no one’s personal preference for certain types of stories and not others explains why we need the term “chick flick,” and especially not why it so often seems to be used as a derogatory term. Do the men who don’t like “chick flicks” prefer movies with only men? Is that what it boils down to?

I’m reminded of a line from Frank Herbert’s Dune regarding taking the “waters of life.” It mentions the place in their minds the Bene Gesserit mother superiors (women) fear to go, a place they believe only the fabled Kwisatz Haderach (a man) can access. The Kwisatz Haderach, once he accesses that place, becomes a superior being destined to lead his people to freedom. I wonder about the allegory Herbert intended, if any. Is there a place like that inside the female psyche, where some of the toughest men fear to go? Is that what they fear about “chick flicks?” Will they gain power if they find a way to access that, or will they lose power, possibly even die, as many men did who attempted to become the Kwisatz Haderach? Or will they simply gain a broader understanding of life and the world around them? In that case, maybe it’s worth a shot.

Gloria Steinem makes an interesting observation about power, and about nouns and adjectives in labels:

“Just as there are “novelists” and then “women novelists,” there are “movies” and then “chick flicks.” Whoever is in power takes over the noun — and the norm — while the less powerful get an adjective. Thus, we read about “African American doctors” but not “European American doctors,” “Hispanic leaders” but not “Anglo leaders,” “gay soldiers” but not “heterosexual soldiers,” and so on.” (read article)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:35 pm PST, 07/09/07

February 25, 2007

More poetry

Aside from the novel, I’ve been reading, writing, learning about, and pretty much immersing myself in poetry. I’ve posted some bits and pieces, mostly practice and works in progress, over at Spirit Blooms in the Poetry Sketchbook category. Feel free to drop by there if you’re curious. Though I’ve taken creative writing workshops in the past, I’ve never taken a poetry workshop, and I think I have a lot to learn before I go even that far. Right now I’m refreshing my memory with basics that I learned when I was young but are now a bit fuzzy.

Beverly Jackson has been an inspiration with her poetry posts, (not to mention her abstract paintings — wow!). She recently shared her experiences at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway – Cape May N.J. and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival on her blog. She also provided examples and book recommendations she got from poets there. Dig into her January archive to read the first of those posts, beginning here.

Right now I’m reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, which I mentioned in a previous post.

HW Longfellow Postage Stamp

My renewed interest in poetry arrives just in time for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s bicentennial, which the United States Postal Service is commemorating with a special stamp — the second to bear his likeness. Longfellow is one of only two writers to be immortalized on more than one US postage stamp. Herman Melville was the other, a distinction he earned, in my estimation, with The Encantadas alone — his sketchbook about the Galapagos Islands.

The stamp displays a portrait of Longfellow, as well as a depiction of Paul Revere’s famous ride. The Smithsonian Magazine’s online biography, Famous Once Again provides lots of interesting details about Longfellow’s life. I never knew, for instance, that he was proficient in so many languages — ten altogether, at one point in his life. He’s considered the “uncrowned poet laureate” of the 19th-century US, and February 27 will be his 200th birthday.

I’m out of touch with today’s curriculums, but when I was young, just hearing or reading the first line, “Listen my children and you shall hear,” could set the cadence of Paul Revere’s Ride beating in my mind. Do kids still learn Longfellow in school? I was older when I read Evangeline, but the first verse is just as deeply embedded in my mind. I’ve since gone back for a taste, drawn in by the same first lines:

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers –
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
(read poem)

I had no idea what a Druid was when I first read that, but the poet drew me into that forest and I was hooked. I wanted to know everything about it. I wanted to know what happened to the Acadians who once lived there.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 6:23 pm PST, 02/25/07

January 8, 2006

Do you read when you’re writing?

Susan, at Spinning, posed this question to writers, in her post on Reading & Writing, after she answered it on another blog. It’s a writing question on the surface only. It can apply to a lot of things people do, mostly creative. It only starts out in a context of writing. I suppose it has a lot to do with our ability to multi-task. I guess I tend to have more of a one-track mind.

When I’m writing fiction, I tend to read mostly nonfiction, often research related to what I’m writing, or a good book on writing, creativity, or personal growth. Anything that helps understand people and their motivations better is helpful to fiction writers, as well as anything that improves our story building skills and instincts—which isn’t necessarily limited to books on writing. I don’t go for the type of self-help books that offer quick fixes to personal problems. I classify most of those with fad diet books. But I’m drawn to books that help me understand human nature and the human experience on a deeper level.
(more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 11:53 am PST, 01/08/06


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