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.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Quit Lit Junkie

So, back during grad school, I made myself two vows. First, I wouldn't read any more "quit lit" (i.e., academics writing about leaving academia), and second I wouldn't read any more diatribes bemoaning the academic job market. Those decisions were simply good psych management. If quit lit was depressing, akin watching a car crash, then reading about job market woes would had even Pollyanna looking for the nearest tall building.

Anyway, they're both related subgenres of academic writing, since the job market is the major reason we leave academia. While I'd personally never stop trying to read, write, and publish everything I could, academia's still the only occupation (other than lottery winner) where you can do that full time. Even today, though, I still can't believe my unimaginable good luck in landing a lectureship at the U of Arizona. Although anything less than a tenure-track position at a major research university can't honestly count as a "dream job," but still, landing a lectureship at a major research university is certainly a "daydream" job. It's beyond anything I could have reasonably hoped to have expected.

What brings on these ruminations, however, is a recent piece of quit lit that's been making the rounds. A historian named Erin Bartram wrote on her blog the following post, The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind. It's a powerful piece of writing. After the post went viral, though, I was even more struck by Bartram's follow-up, an interview she did for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which can be found here.

Some of the highlights of that interview:

  • "There are countless people who have . . . go look at my CV and find reasons why I didn’t get a job." 
    • Yes. Although I'm as bad at c.v.-stalking as anyone else, it's also a cop-out to "explain" her lack of job by what's on her c.v.. You must do everything you can to bolster that document, but luck will always be the major reason anyone gets a job in this market. As proud as I am of my c.v. at this stage in my career, I still just got lucky to find the right job at the right time.
  • "people I know have been turned down for jobs when their CVs as candidates already had more publications on them than senior members of that committee. That hurts."
    • Understatement. And -- anger, although deep down we all know that it's not really the fault of those academics entrenched in the system.
  • The "survivor's guilt" of someone getting an actual academic job.
    • Yes, yes, and double yes. Even reading about the murderous workloads of my friends who got community college jobs (and these are the "lucky" grad school survivors who weren't forced out of academia), my own sense of guilt is fine-honed. Once again, no matter how diligently one works on one's c.v., the most important factor at the end of the day is still just luck. And that realization makes life seem very, very precarious.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Finally completed my reading of Paul Edwin Zimmer!

Of all the Zimmer stories and poems I've had to track down, "The Border Women" excited me most -- women don't often make a large appearance in his fiction. Unfortunately, I've had the damnest time finding the darn thing. First, I interlibrary loan'd it. Took forever and, when I got tired of waiting, I purchased it from two different sellers on Amazon. The first seller cancelled on me. The second, after missing his first Amazon-imposed delivery deadline, also missed the second self-imposed one after I contacted him. So I just cancelled that one as well. 

But the book has arrived at the U of A, and I pretty quickly saw why it was relegated to Special Collections (meaning that I couldn't check it out of the library). The book itself was in good shape, but apparently it was part of a limited 300-edition volume. That limited edition business explains why I had such a tough time finding it on Amazon itself.

Anyway, what do I think about the story itself?

Well, first, it's cool that it's set at the very end of events from The Dark Border -- the story's about a group of women alone in a redoubt when the Border flares, their men all away fighting Hansio's war. 

It's also cool that PEZ's sense of horror, which is usually relatively muted in his other Dark Border fiction, comes out in full force here.

And it's also cool that PEZ tries working with a range of non-martial characters unusual for him.

Some things, though, were not necessarily bad but, well, off. This story clearly runs afoul of the "How do you add swearing in a genre without swearing" problem. One character keeps yelling "you rotting thing!", which gets annoying after about the 4th or 5th time. Also, PEZ has a slight tendency to reuse plot points from previous work. For example, the encountering-a-former-friend-turned-vampire plot point also appeared in "A Swordsman from Carcosa," which in turns re-uses the "Istvan has recently lost his son" theme from The Dark Border.

All in all, though, the story's decent enough, and I'm glad to have finally gone through the entire Paul Edwin Zimmer corpus. I'll begin writing my essay as soon as my current project is done (hopefully soon!).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Tweeted by a Tolkien Scholar!

So, a super cool thing happened to me about two years ago . . . and I didn't notice until just the other day.

Back in 2016, I published an article in The Journal of Tolkien Research about Saruman, rhetoric, and Plato's concept of thumos. Well, what I noticed the other day was that Dimitra Fimi, one of my favorite Tolkien scholars, actually tweeted the link to that along with a compliment. I always read her work whenever I come across it, and I even had the pleasure to review her edition (co-edited with Andrew Higgins) of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, so that tweet just tickled me pink.

It took me two years to notice that tweet, btw, since I so rarely use my twitter account. I should probably use it more, though, especially as the forum has been kind to me. Within my first week of opening my account, as a matter of fact, I saw the CFP for a festschrift of. Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff, and that actually turned out to be one of my first official academic acceptances.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Wow -- N. K. Jemisin

I first encountered Jemisin through her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I didn't care much for it, I remember. Really, I only read it because she seemed to be earning as much praise for being an African-American fantasy author as for writing good books,*** soI was curious about her work. But, although the book wasn't good enough for me to continue the series, it was nonetheless good enough that I didn't mind giving her most recent series, The Broken Earth, a try. I read The Fifth Season (2015) about a year after it came out, and it utterly absorbed me.

Now, over the last week, I finished The Obelisk Gate (2016) and The Stone Sky (2017).

Let me say -- well, damn. Wow wow wow. Words fails me. The term "masterpiece" can be thrown out too cavalierly, but I don't know if even that quite cuts it here. It's been a long time since I read something so original and so gut-wrenchingly powerful. 

Part of me cannot help wondering how more deeply I would have reacted to the book had I read it twenty or even ten years ago, when the sense of grief the books articulate would have been even more poignant for me.

I won't mention my thoughts on the series here -- I suspect it'll take me a long time to process them completely. The experience of having read The Broken Earth is still too raw, Jemisin's themes too complex and deeply layered. I had a similar experience reading Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, although Jemisin's series is longer and more immersive. For now, though, I think it safe to say that this may be one of the best works of speculative fiction ever written -- maybe even a landmark of modern literature period, no matter the genre categorization.

***At least, that was the case in the online articles where I first encountered her name.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Blake Charlton's SPELLWRIGHT

Just finished this one, and it's one of the few books that's simultaneously provoked a "wow, cool!" and a "meh" response.

The book has Charlton's magic system to thank for its Cool Factor. Basically, all spells are written in language that has taken tangible form -- size, weight, color, the works. As such, there's a ton of fun puns and concepts in here. For example, the main character casts a spell in a purple-tinted magical language, which opens him to the accusation -- made quite seriously, mind you -- of engaging in "adolescent purple prose." To censure a magician is to prevent them from casting spells. Ghostwriting is when a spellwright casts a spell to create his own ghost. Likewise, a subtext is a spell that no one can see.

Just as fun for rhetoric nerds like myself, one of Charlton's spellwrights can tell another's identity by the high frequency of double appositives in their magical prose. 

My favorite reference, though, comes when Charlton describes the perils of the Disjunction, where demons threaten to break the tradition linkage between signifier and signified -- a good dig at deconstructionism always makes my day.***

Also, another cool element is simply Charlton's basic smarts. The dangers of changing a word's spelling, for example, recalls the debate about evolution -- slight changes can be beneficial, some are neutral, but most changes create destructive disasters. Likewise, most of the characters are terrified of completely cacaphonic (nonsensical) languages, which strikes akin to the fears over posthumanism where "nature" is no longer a valid measuring stick. (Charlton didn't actually develop that theme, but I think some critical legwork could find the implications there.)

Unfortunately, and I hate to say this, despite all these cool things, I found Spellwright to be relatively off-putting. The plot is .  . . okay, I suppose. Somewhat convoluted, and skim-read large swaths of text. The teacher-magician figure is moderately amusing but hardly memorable. Nicodemus Weal, the protagonist, is a rather dull "child of prophecy" without much personality outside his dyslexia. In fact, speaking of prophecy, I was a bit surprised at how much I disliked the author using that old fantasy trope. Although Charlton does attempt to do something slightly new with it (i.e., putting the whole idea in doubt), it was too little and too late for me.

So, an "A" in magical systems, a "B" in general world-building, but a "C" in plot and character.

Charlton also gets an "A" is Being Totally Awesome As A Person. Apparently, he overcame severe dyslexia as a kid with the help of fantasy fiction, graduated summa cum laude from Yale, and is now a doctor with several medical publications in addition to his Spellwright trilogy. The s.o.b. is even the same age as me, the jerk.

Incidentally, I checked out Charlton's website, and he has a cool blog post about language in Tolkien. It can be found here.

***Incidentally, nothing marks this book as fantasy like how Nicodemus Weal is excited to teach a group of young students "composition."