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Saturday, October 8, 2016 - 11:32

The schedule is out for Chessiecon in Timmonium MD (Thanksgiving weekend) and I have some great program items to participate in!

In addition to my reading, which will double as a release party for Mother of Souls, I'll be on a couple of panel discussions about topic near and dear to Alpennia. Combining Hard Science and Fantasy (or: High-Tech Magic) looks at how authors set up the underlying rules for fantastic or magical worlds. Silent Symphonies: Incorporating Music into Literature will discuss the challenge of describing music through text, when that music is a vital part of the story. (I can't wait for people to see how well I managed to describe magical operas in Mother of Souls.) It's Awesome, Well-Written, and Groundbreaking...But Do You Like It? This is a question that's been nibbling at me for the last several years: what do you do when all your friends describe a book as mind-blowingly fabulous and you think it's...merely very good? And I'll finish up on Sunday with Stupendous Bollocks, a game-show type format where we panelists get scored on how interesting our discussions about a topic are--whether they're true or not. If you think my research and documentation is fascinating, you should see what I can do when I don't let veracity stand in the way!

Mother of Souls
Friday, October 7, 2016 - 13:45

Shakespeare is often touted for the universality of his stories—the way the themes resonate down the ages even when the historic settings are long past. But the flip side of that is the ability to distance ourselves from those themes, not only because they are framed as entertainment, but because their historic grounding provides an easy out. “Yes, Romeo and Juliet is a universal story, but after all we no longer live in a society that marries off pre-teen girls or where private feuds spill over into public body-counts. (Except when we do; except where they do.)

Othello has a lot of fodder for relevance today, with its themes of racism, jealousy, and domestic violence. In its fourth and final show of the 2016 season, Cal Shakes takes a brutal approach to connecting that relevance to our own lives and times. The show is meant to be disturbing and painful—almost the opposite of “entertainment”—and that intent is framed by a number of unusual features of the performance meant to prepare and manage the audience reception. The connections are strongly drawn to contemporary racially motivated hatred, casual micro-aggressions, the burning anger of disappointed entitlement, the use of Islam as a looming faceless Other, and the explosive intersection of the power dynamics of misogyny and racism.

And the bedrock of how the play is staged relies on confronting the inescapable fact that the Cal Shakes audience skews very white and very affluent. The performance begins with a “pre-show” monologue by actor Lance Gardner (Cassio) filled with racial/ethnic/religious “jokes” drawn from the headlines that can neither be laughed at nor applauded nor met in silence when delivered from a black performer to a predominantly white audience. The purpose is to shake us up, to make us squirm, to warn us that this will be an uncomfortable show and that it’s ok to acknowledge that discomfort. It’s meant to signal us to listen to Shakespeare’s words with the same unease we would have if we heard them from the guy at the next table in Starbucks. (Oops, instead let’s go with Cal Shakes sponsors Peets Coffee & Tea.) When Iago taunts Desdemona’s father that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” we should hear the voices of right-wing hate radio. When Othello asks his fractious subordinates, “Are we turned Turks?” we should see how quickly and reflexively violent acts are ascribed to Muslims. As those four hundred year old lines roll resonantly off the stage, we’re meant to feel them as raw and in-our-face, not as the work of an Old Dead White Guy whose legacy can be shaken off as only “the context of his times.”

The staging was starkly bare: a ring of chairs, a table with a handful of props, a pair of microphones at the side for extra-textual asides (as when Desdemona’s strangulation is accompanied by a medical recitation of the physiological process), a projection screen used to label the setting change (and to project real-time close-ups of specific actors at key points). The only significant piece of scenery is the bed where Desdemona’s murder takes place. The costuming, too, pins us to current events, most overtly with Othello’s black hoodie.

The Cal Shakes casting choices are frequently race-neutral (at least when casting traditionally white roles) but although three prominent roles are filled by black actors, the choice is far from neutral. Othello, of course, is played by Aldo Billingslea (a Cal Shakes regular, most recently seen as main character Troy Maxson in Fences). But also his right-hand man Cassio (Lance Gardner, who has featured in all four shows this season), and the Duke of Venice (Elizabeth Carter, who also plays Bianca and some unnamed roles in this production). This adds an extra layer to Iago’s (James Carpenter) racialized sense of injured entitlement. Not only has Othello been elevated as general over him by a black duke, but Othello has (presumably in Iago’s mind) preferred Cassio over Iago, driven by racial solidarity. This adds another unspoken motivation for using Cassio as the weapon to strike at Othello’s equilibrium while shifting the implications of Desdemona’s fictitious transfer of affections.

The racial dynamics of Othello transfer fairly well across the centuries, but the role of toxic patriarchy in driving the tragedy was the water Shakespeare was swimming in. Desdemona (Liz Sklar) connects that part of the circle in one of the few costume-related actions. After the scene where Othello has struck her, as the next scene continues in her absence, we see a real-time projection of Sklar, backstage, applying make-up for a black eye in reverse-echo of endless women covering up the marks of their abuse.

At the climax of the play—just before Othello’s suicide—the cast breaks to address the audience, with Desdemona rising from the dead to take the lead, and leads a discussion of reactions and analysis. (I can’t really call it “breaking the fourth wall” because Cal Shakes kind of burned down the fourth wall a very long time ago.) It’s a moment that could feel unintentionally humorous but was all of a piece with the interactive nature of the performance. What did this work mean to you? How did it make you feel? What connections have you made? It was in this context that the themes of misogyny and domestic violence were addressed as they couldn’t be within the framework of Shakespeare’s script alone. And yet it was this discussion that made me realize the limitations of drawing the story into today’s headlines. We cannot escape the priorities and anxieties we bring to our experience. Othello’s story is that of a man deliberately destroyed, both in body and self-hood, because of racialized envy and hatred. But Desdemona’s story is that of a woman destroyed as a casual, objectified consequence by patriarchal structures and a system that presumes men’s ownership of women’s bodies and lives. To identify with her is to see Othello as a villain—not for his race, but for his masculinity, the very masculinity that he is fighting so hard to maintain. While to identify with him is to see Desdemona as a thing, a tool, a stage prop, someone who had no agency to affect her own fate and whose tragedy is not her own but part of Othello’s. In the conflict between these two narratives I couldn’t help seeing a reflection—though I don’t believe the performance itself specifically evoked this—of OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown and the impossible tangle inherent in that particular overlay of social power dynamics.

In summary: a powerful, disturbing staging of Othello that succeeded in assaulting the concept of the audience as passive consumers of entertainment and went far beyond the usual goal of making Shakespeare “relevant.”

Friday, October 7, 2016 - 07:36
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.3 Eighteenth-Century Fantasy and the Lesbian Image

Faderman’s chronology and progression is again hampered by gaps in the literary record. If this work were simply an exploration of attitudes towards female homoeroticism, these gaps would be less of a problem. But her thesis is that those attitudes have evolved in specific and relatively linear ways. In this context, her thesis is undermined by the omission of earlier examples of attitudes that would disrupt that timeline, or that support a more circular understanding of attitudes toward lesbian characters. For example, Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (ca. 1777) could hardly be the original prototype for its literary subgenge given that Choriers’s Satyra Sotadica (which touches on many of the same themes) appeared well over a century earlier.

Faderman notes that Mairobert’s description of the nature and practices of a secret lesbian society were taken as documentary, rather than fictional, well into the 20th century. While this might seem improbable, I’d like to point out that “serious” medical and sociological literature about lesbians continued to be really awful well into the 1960s. I still recall reading David Reuben’s popularist (but serious) Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1969) in the early 1970s and miraculously failing to be traumatized by his credulous repetition of the 16th century myth that the epitome of lesbian sex involved finding a woman with a clitoris large enough to achive penetration.

With regard to Faderman’s conclusion about the nature and purposes of these satires (see below), I’m not certain how this conclusion proceeds from the evidence she presents. Certainly it seems to make too sharp a distinction between hostility toward women for gendered reasons, and hostility for sexual reasons. If an accusation of lesbian behavior was considered a practical tool for destroying a woman socially, then it seems that, by definition, lesbian sex must have been “taken seriously” by men, whether or not the specific women being accused were actually engaging in sex with other women. But this would conflict with Faderman’s overall thesis that lesbian sex was not considered an actual socially-condemned reality until the end of the 19th century.

In this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later. The tropes it uses will be echoed regularly up through the 20th century: an older woman seduces a younger (both beautiful and feminine in appearance) who will eventually be “rescued” by a man; sexual practices are diverse and shade into S&M; a secret formal organized club of lesbians who gather for pseudo-religious rituals and orgiastic practices; and a derogatory association of lesbians and Catholics. Fictional treatments such as this were treated as historic documentation by later writers.

Mairobert’s story follows a girl who is obsessed with sexual stimulation, runs away from home and is taken in by a madam who discover’s the girl’s large clitoris and trains her to satisfy a female clientele with lesbian tastes. (The girl is named--with no subtlety at all--Sapho.) The goal of the work is clearly titillation for the male reader, while ending with reassurance that hetersexuality will triumph.

A secondary purpose of the book was as a roman à clef, intended to harrass and embarrass specific contemporary women with thinly-veiled characterizations. This use of lesbian sex literature appears repeatedly, as in William King’s The Toast (1736), written as revenge against Lady Frances Brudenell for besting him in a business deal. Social and legal assertiveness is attributed to an unnatural sexual appetite that reveals itself in a pansexual libido, but with undue attention turned toward interactions with other women. The goal was to inspire others to shun the target of the satire, lest their own sexuality become suspect.

This same technique had been used earlier by Anthony Hamilton against a Miss Hobart at the court of Charles II of England in the fictionalized Memoirs of the Life of Count de Grammont. A more extensive and broad-based campaign accused the French Queen Marie Antoinette of lesbian relationships with the ladies of her court. As with the other cases, the underlying motivation appears to have been hostility to female social or political power and to the potential influence of personal bonds between women. In most of these cases, accusations were not confined to lesbianism, rather that accusation was simply one feature of an indiscriminate and voracious sexual appetite.

Aside from hostility to powerful women, accusations of lesbianism were a feature of anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in England. The classic example is Diderot’s The Nun, where an innocent girl, sent to a convent against her will, is the victim of sexually predatory and sadistic nuns. While anxieties about sexual activity in all-female institutions had featured in literature back into the 16th century [and even earlier, in penitential literature of the church itself] this new genre blended religious animosity with hostility toward women with authority, such as abbesses. (In Diderot’s case, his literary hostility also may have been inspired by jealously of his mistress’s close relationships with her sister and other women, though the answer may be even simpler as his writings show a streak of misogyny that stands out even for his day and age.) 

After relating this catalog of literature in which male authors use lesbianism as a means of expressing general hostility toward women with influence and power, as well as for exacting revenge against particular women, Faderman concludes, “Lesbianism itself was seldom the focal point of attack in these works. Eighteenth-century men do not appear to have viewed love-making between nontransvestite women with much seriousness. The most virulent depictions of lesbian (or rather pansexual) behavior seem to have been rooted in the writer’s anger at a particular woman’s conduct in an area apart from the sexual. Her aggressive sexuality was used primarily as a metaphor.”

Time period: 
Thursday, October 6, 2016 - 11:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.2 What Do Women Do?

This chapter begins with the statement “If any women wrote lesbian sex literature during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, it has been lost to posterity. Had such literature existed, the descriptions of lesbian lovemaking would certainly have been different from the ones that are extant.”

Thanks to the research of others, we know of a number of such items that have not been lost to posterity. The anthology The Literature of Lesbianism (ed. by Terry Castle) provides a useful sampling, such as Delarivier Manley’s “The Ladies of the New Cabal” from The New Atalantis (1709) which describes the romantic and erotic adventures of members of an all-female society, or Mary Wortley Montagu’s (non-fictional) descriptions of sex between women in Turkish bathhouses (1716-18).

There is, perhaps, not a large enough volume of such work to make solid contrasts between how men and women addressed the topic. But Faderman’s assertion that the focus during this era on “missionary position” tribadism and on penetrative sex using a dildo was a creation entirely of male imagination also falls afoul of the legal testimony around women who were accused of lesbian sex. Both types of activity feature in real-life cases, although it’s true that the written record may focus on these activities in contrast to other possibilities precisely because they played to male anxieties.

My own anxiety around the conclusions of this chapter is in their circularity. If one excludes kissing and caressing from the definition of “sex” on the basis that they didn’t seem to provoke male anxiety, then it’s hard not to conclude that “sex” is defined only as genital activity. But this seems to presuppose that “sex” is defined as “those activities that provoke male anxiety when performed between women”. Starting from that point, you get an argument along the lines of “Men didn’t care what women did together as long as they only did things that men didn’t care about when women did them together.”

In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.

Male authors also emphasize that when penetrative sex (whether involving a man or an instrument) is absent that other types of activities, such as kissing, caressing, and embracing, must be by definition unsatisfying. This theme comes up in Sir Philips Sidney’s Arcadia and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.

The genre of medical literature that was beginning to take note of the role of the clitoris in female sexual satisfaction echoed this interpretation in imagining that sex between women necessarily either caused or was caused by a clitoris that was sufficiently enlarged to function as a penis.

Faderman’s conclusions--though based entirely on male-authored works--are that relationships between women that involved admiration, tenderness, and mutual concern never involved genital activity; that only genital activity was considered “lesbian” regardless of what other erotic components might be present; and that women would never have conceived of a definition of lesbianism that was defined solely by genital activity and in particular by penetrative sex.

Time period: 
Thursday, October 6, 2016 - 07:29

Here in the Bay Area, there's a certain feel in the air when fall has come--an assortment of possible feels, truth to tell. The one we all dread is when the wind turns hot and strong, the leaves dry up and turn to dust in the air, blinding the eyes, and every breath is evaluated for the taste of smoke. October is Fire Season, when the particulates in the air turn the sunset into a Maxfield Parrish painting.

But this year fall came with a different feeling. Between one day and the next, the air tasted...colder, damper, darker. And then, with almost no warning, an energetic downpour passed through. Not a large-system storm that wets everything across the eleven counties, but the sort where I could bicycle to Walnut Creek and back and not realize it had rained until I came back to wet pavements in Concord. At least twice since then I've woken up to clear skies and puddles on the patio. The air is thick with thoughts of, "Please, let it be a wet winter."

In the space of a week, I went from sleeping with the window open and the ceiling fan running to swapping out the summer duvet (that mostly lay scrunched at the foot of the bed) for the winter one.

The tomatoes are shutting down their flowers and I'm reviewing recipes for green tomato relish in case we don't get enough hot days for the remaining fruit to ripen. On the days when it's still warm enough to sit out in the garden, birdsong has given way to the rasping of squirrels cracking nuts and the explosive crunch of the black walnet shells from the alley behind my yard as cars pass through.

Dusk has drawn back far enough that we put the running lights on the dragonboats before taking them out, but not yet far enough that the bay has calmed and we can paddle out past the breakwater to practice with the fairy-lights of The City in view. The next month's practices will be marked by watching sunset creep slowly south from the Marin headlands until it's framed between the towers of the Golden Gate. If the fog allows, we time the practice route to include a pause to watch the sun sink into the sea. Some people say they've seen the Green Flash, but I never have.

What signs mark the turning of your season?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 17:39

Is it too much of a coincidence that Mr. Carmichael comes back from Moscow the very day that Sara needs to return the monkey to Mr. Carrisford? Perhaps, perhaps. Chapter 17 opens in expectation of this event, with three of the Carmichael children paying a friendly visit to the Indian Gentleman to cheer him up, such that they will also be conveniently at hand when their father (and later Sara) arrives. The scene has the feel of a carefully orchestrated stage setting, and so perhaps it is.

We are told a brief summary of why the trip has been so drawn out...which it must have been, for as we recall, it was the very night that he left on the journey that Sara's attic was first magically transformed. So Carmichael's trip needs to have been long enough for Sara and Becky to become accustomed to their good fortune, and to show the effects of being well-fed and happy. We also get a lovely little character sketch of Donald Carmichael (the boy who gave Sara his Christmas sixpence) as a boisterous and imaginative child, and a more mixed sketch of Janet Carmichael as too-soon becoming a little responsible mother figure. It's Janet's task to do emotional work for Mr. Carrisford, reassuring him that it wasn't his fault about losing Captain Crewe's money. (I have some odd flights of fancy about Janet's later life, but this isn't the place for them.)

In the midst of the conversation about the hunt for Captain Crewe's lost daughter, the storylines begin to cross. The Carmichael children explain that they call the lost girl "the little un-fairy princess", imagining what her life will be like when she discovers that she's a fabulous heiress. For them, she is a princess not because of behaving like one (Sara's basis for her princess identity) but because of these external trappings. And out of nowhere, Donald brings up the "little-girl-who-is-not-a-beggar" (i.e., the real Sara, whom they've been observing) and how she has nice new clothes and maybe she has been found by someone after being lost, just like the un-fairy princess will be. And of course, she has, it's only that none of them quite know it yet.

Carmichael, after traveling all the way back from Moscow, fulfills dramatic story requirements by coming directly to Carrisford's house to make his report (rather than going home to freshen up first), though perhaps this is only kind of him to avoid drawing out the suspense. The fact that there is no little girl accompanying him tells its own story. The Carmichael children are shooed away and Carmichael reports that the girl in Moscow--though having superficial similarities--is not Captain Crewe's daughter and they must begin the search anew.

And here's where I'm willing to forgive certain coincidences that only shorten, rather than entirely enabling, the resolution. For Carmichael suggests that rather than searching schools in Paris, on the assumption that Sara was sent there due to her mother's origins, they should try schools in London, because her father was British after all. And Carrisford immediately thinks of the school next door, casually mentioning the poor child there that he's taken an interest in, but simultaneoulsy rejecting the notion that the "dark, forlorn creature" could possibly be the daughter of his bright, golden, happy friend Crewe. Of course, the moment Carmichael would approach Miss Minchin and ask after the possibility that she knew anything of an orphan girl named Crewe, the mystery would be solved. So I'm happy enough that it's at this very moment that Sara knocks on the door to return the monkey, and that Ram Dass comes in to suggest that Carrisford might want to meet her in person to thank her--knowing, of course, that she's the object of their magical charity (and knowing that she doesn't know it).

It doesn't take any special literary analysis skills to know that All WIll Be Revealed in the following scene. But the revelation is multi-layered and delicious, so I'll save it for it's own entry.

Oh, but one more thing. Since this series is my expiation for loving ALP despite its problematic aspects, I must note that we're treated to one more bucket of icy-cold Orientalism when Carrisford notes that having planned The Magic together, it was only possible with "the help of an agile, soft-footed Oriental like Ram Dass" because it's necessary to evoke the sterotype of a "magical" Indian servant who can move without being heard and act without being seen. The wording turns this from Carrisford acknowledging the assistance of someone more mobile than he is (in his convalescence) to turning Ram Dass into something of a supernatural figure.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - 14:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.1 Lesbianism and the Libertines

In discussing "libertine" literature, there seems an unexamined conflict between the voracious and indiscriminate sexual appetites these women are depicted as having, and Faderman's thesis that "women in centuries other than ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion." To be sure, most of the examples of literary lesbian encounters in this era were written from a male gaze, but if the argument is that women were socially conditioned to not express sexual desire, then how are these texts not part of that conditioning?

It is also easy to find pre-20th century examples of "the trope of initiation by an older, predatory woman." Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Life of the Count de Grammont is a prime early example, and there was an entire literature of "lesbians in the convent" which frequently involved an older authority figure as sexual initiator.

Another point where Faderman's conclusions conflict with more recent scholarship is the question of whether sexual encounters between women were viewed as being socially destabilizing in the absence of overtly "masculine" behavior such as cross-dressing. On the contrary, historic studies of cross-dressing seem to indicate that a causal connection between cross-dressing and lesbian sexuality is, itself, relatively recent. A certain amount of the vitriol around accusations of lesbian relationships in 18th century England seems to have revolved specifically around their potential to disrupt expected social and class relations, or to contribute to resistance to heterosexual marriage.

The book opens with an examination of  female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman). The encounters he describes follow a common pattern for this type of literature where women are seen as being sexually voracious and might amuse themselves with women to avoid either the condemnation or consequences of an affair with a man, but who are eager to turn to men when the opportunity offers.

The putative frustration of women trying to sexually satisfy each other is seen in poems such as Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin’s Sonnett XXXII "Two Beauties Tender Lovers" and Pontus de Tyard’s “Elegy for a Woman who Loves Another Woman.” The latter, though, acknowledges the possibility of women seeking ennoblement through such a relationship, and not simply gratification. Other poems were more satyric in intent, such as François Mainard’s “Tribades seu Lesbia” which hints at digital stimulation, but Faderman notes an absence of the same level of vitriolic attack that is found against male homosexuals.

Some of the most popular depictions of sex between women emphasized it as “preparation” for heterosexual activity, either in the sense of learning techniques (as in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), or as a direct prelude to a man joining the women in bed, as in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova.

Medical manuals of the 18th century that touch on sex between women tend to treat it as a subset of masturbation. There is a brief mention of how sex between women faced more hostility if one of the women was a “transvestite”, due to the challenge to male status, but neither “passing women” nor “female husbands” appear in the book’s index (except for the inclusion of Fielding’s book The Female Husband) and this entire topic seems to have been passed over.

Faderman notes that the women in these stories “function in an amoral universe” and that the trope of initiation by an older, predatory woman does not appear until the 20th century. “Unlike in our century, it was seldom believed in earlier eras that non-procreative sexual behavior might carry over to autonomous social behavior, unless a woman flamboyantly demonstrated the connection, by transvestism for example.

Time period: 
Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - 08:00

This past weekend I tackled the emotionally draining process of going through all my notes and lists about potential reviewers for Mother of Souls and this morning I sent the initial list to my publisher.

It's not a simple process. There are a small number of people who get an advance copy -- though what that means in practice is that they get the Word file with my latest version. In the "real" publishing world, it's all about Advance Review Copies (ARCs) and the majority of serious reviewers won't review a book after the publication date. So for the most part, I don't get reviews of that sort.

The next group are people I've had positive interest from--people who have actively asked for a review copy or who've said yes when I offered one. There's actually a gratifying number of those this time. Their preferred format and e-mail get passed along to receive a copy at release. The third group are review sites that say, "Send us a copy and if one of our reviewers is interested, we might do a review." Those get scrutinized rather heavily to see if their existing reviews suggest a likelihood of success, because I don't like using up my review-request credit with my publisher on pure speculation. The fourth group are reviewers whose website says, "tell me about your book, and if I'm interested I'll let you know." Those get a query and then I pretty much forget about them because I don't think they've ever panned out. I mostly survive this process by burying myself in the geekery of spreadsheets.

The Alpennia books focus a lot on high magic: the Great Mysteries in the cathedral, or at the very least the ceremonies of formal guilds. But there have been a lot of references to smaller, more informal workings: the floodtide "sweetheart divination" that Antuniet adapts for her book-finding charm, everyday prayers for health that are embedded in little rituals, the small magics dismissed as "market-charms", bought and sold in the plaiz and of questionable efficacy. The more precarious one's life is, the more likely one is to place hope in those charms--to eke out one's resources with a bit of luck, to stave off disease when there's no money for a physician, to gain answers to which path to choose. Any time the marketplace is filled with people, they charm-wives gather to offer their wares. And Carnival is a prime opportunity...

* * *

Chapter 13 - Luzie

“I’m freezing again," Luzie said. "If we aren’t going to dance, there’s less wind under the arches and we could have our fortunes told.” And the drifting smoke from the food-sellers would be less noticeable there. Luzie took Serafina by the hand and led her to the covered walk that bordered the plaiz, where they were besieged by market-women with trinkets and charms.

“Ribbons, Maisetra? Fine silks and laces?”

“A candle with a blessing from the Holy Mother, guaranteed to cure the cough.”

The woman who offered it turned away briefly to hawk and spit. It might have been only the smokey air, but Luzie made a note not to trust her cures.

“What would you buy? Combs for your hair, Maisetra?”

Luzie pushed past the more forward of the hawkers to the stretch where the charm-wives gathered. They were less inclined to besiege their customers, and instead waited for a need to be presented before they gathered around to argue the efficacy of their wares over those of their rivals.

Serafina gazed at each of them in fascination. What did she see? Luzie wondered. She leaned closely. “Can you tell which of them can work mysteries and which are frauds?”

“It’s not…” Serafina looked down, realizing that she had been staring. “It’s not quite like that. Some of the charms have power and some don’t. At least from what I can see. But some may only show it when used. And some of the women, I can see that they… Margerit would say they have the ear of the saints. You can see the echo of holiness following them. But that doesn’t mean that all their works have power. It’s complicated. They don’t always know what they’re doing, you see.”

Luzie didn’t see at all. She laughed at the thought. No, she didn’t see at all. “Who shall we ask to tell our fortunes?”

No sooner had the question left her lips than they were surrounded by offers. Luzie looked sidelong at Serafina, waiting for a sign.

“If you want the hope of truth, that one,” Serafina said, nodding at an older woman wrapped in red shawls, sitting behind a barrel that served as a table, back against the building wall.

They were all older women, of course, and a few old men. Who would trust a young charm-wife? And who would try to scrape a living peddling cures and market-charms if they still had the strength for more certain work?

The woman turned sharp eyes on the both of them, looking from face to face, but she didn’t rise.

“What do you care to ask, Maisetras?” She unwrapped a set of cards and began shifting them around in her hands with quick, jerky movements.

Luzie looked at Serafina who nodded at her to go first.

“There is a…an endeavor that I have begun.” Did she really want to know what her Tanfrit songs might become? Why had she chosen that question?

Before she could either offer more details or change her mind, the woman shuffled the cards one last time and laid out several on the barrelhead, keeping a fingertip of her left hand on each to keep the breeze from shifting them.

“Ah, they speak clearly,” the fortune-teller began, tucking away the remaining cards and pointing to those displayed in turn. “It is a long path you’ve set your feet on. You see here? But a dark stranger will help you to your heart’s desire.”

Luzie glanced at Serafina again. They both grinned like schoolgirls. A dark stranger indeed. It didn’t take any mystical visions to suggest that.

“Beware the man who will betray you. He has less power than you think. Not enough to destroy your work, but enough to destroy your dreams. That is all the cards say.”

It was the sort of vague answer that anyone could give, but Luzie pulled a few coins out of her reticule and placed them in the woman’s hand. “Thank you. Serafina, what will you ask?”

Serafina nodded to the woman, almost like a little bow. “I ask nothing now, but if I have a question that needs a true answer, I will return, Mefro.”

Mother of Souls
Monday, October 3, 2016 - 08:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

Given how foundational a work this is on the study of love between women in western culture, it’s a bit surprising that I’ve taken so long to include it here. Surpassing the Love of Men is an awkward work in several ways. On a trivial level, the density of information combined with a large number of chapters means I have the choice between dividing it up into 26 bite-size entries, or 6 unwieldy ones. At the time I’m writing this, my plan is to go for the smaller entries but post them more often than usual. (It occurs to me this book would have been a convenient Pride Month project, with a post every day, but I don’t feel like putting it off.)

On a philosophical level, Surpassing the Love of Men is awkward because, in the 35 years since it was published, a number of Faderman’s positions have been found to be historically inaccurate. As Faderman notes in her introduction, the book was inspired by her puzzlement over the contrast between the love expressed by poet Emily Dickinson to her future sister-in-law Sue Gilbert and the unselfconsciousness Dickinson apparently felt in expressing that love. Faderman notes that she had gone into her study of Dickinson convinced that here was a mid 19th century American lesbian waiting to be reclaimed for the team, but she couldn’t integrate that framing with Dickinson’s lack of guilt or anxiety around a same-sex relationship that had not had the benefit of the gay liberation movement.

That sounds a bit quaint and...perhaps even smug. How could anyone be comfortable in a non-normative life without the support of a political movement? When Faderman went looking for similar same-sex sentiments to the ones in DIckinson’s poetry and correspondence, she found the 19th century to be rife with them, not only in correspondence but in literary representations. She found that such sentiments were so common as to have a variety of conventional labels: Boston marriage, sentimental friends, the love of kindred spirits, or dating back to the 18th century, romantic friends. And now we come to the sentence that is at the heart of Faderman’s most important failing in this work:

“These romantic friendships were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital, since women in centuries other than ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion.”

The problem is that this is not a true historical statement of attitudes towards women’s sexuality in pre-modern times, either by women or by society in general. I can only presume that Faderman’s focus on the 19th century led her to be less familiar with earlier data and to accept that century’s beliefs about the past as being accurate. And, in fairness, much of the work on the history of sexuality that would easily refute this understanding has been produced after the publication of this work. I’d love to know if Faderman has shifted on this position since then. (I’ll see if I can track anything down on this point. If I had the nerve, I might even try writing her!) But this means that in my presentation of this work, I may be adding pointers to contradictory evidence and opinions.

Faderman’s overall conclusions run something like this: Prior to around the 18th century, nobody cared what women did romantically or sexually together as long as they didn’t challenge masculine privilege, either by adopting masculine dress or by resisting the supremacy of heterosexuality.  18-19th century female “romantic friends” mostly did not have sex with each other because women didn’t have sex drives until the 20th century (except in prurient male imaginations). Because genital sex wasn’t involved, romantic friends felt no guilt or shame about devoting their lives to each other and expressing their love openly. But then the late 19th century sexologists invented homosexuality as a concept and included women’s romantic friendships as an example of the homosexual continuum. Now, retroactively, romantic friends were suspect, leading for example to Emily Dickinson’s niece omitting much of the romantic content in her papers when editing them for publication in th 1920s. Now it was no longer possible for two women to be unselfconsiously and innocently in love with each other, resulting in lesbian literature becoming riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing until the gay liberation movement of the 1960s made it ok again.

OK, so that came off sounding a bit snarky. And I don’t actually mean it to be. This was a groundbreaking and valuable work when it was written, and it’s still a valuable compendium of historic information on how romantic friendship was expressed. But I think it’s been amply demonstrated since then that the premise that romantic friendships were never sexual has been shown to be as incorrect as a presumption that they must always have been sexual.

The structure of the book is also awkward for my usual pattern of simply identifying entries in sequence by chapter numbers. There are three parts, each part has two sections, and each section has 3-5 chapters with numbering starting over from “chapter 1” for each section. So the individual entries will be identified with something like “II.B.3 [chapter title]. Here’s the overall structure above the chapter level:

Part I: The Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries

  • A. Lesbianism in a Phallocentric Universe
  • B. The Enshrinement of Romantic Friendship

Part II: The Nineteenth Century

  • A. Loving Friends
  • B. The Reaction

Part III: The Twentieth Century

  • A. Sophistication
  • B. When it Changed
Friday, September 30, 2016 - 08:00

Yes, it’s that time again when I’ve been binge-listening to the Podcastle audio fantasy fiction on my podcast feed and have decided to catch up with several months worth of reviews. As previously, my ability to remember what I thought of a story (or even what the story was about) fades the longer ago I listened to it.

422: Golden Chaos by M.K. Hutchins - A vaguely Nordic secondary-world village sits at the edge of a zone of chaos that has been known to provide treasure but also destroys randomly. The protagonist’s expectations of a profitable season and thus the ability to marry his betrothed are destroyed by his brother’s distractability. But in the chaos zone, his brother’s talent for deep focus may be an advantage. Detailed worldbuilding and a subtle and sympathetic portrayal of a non-neurotypical character, though I’m becoming a little uncomfortable with the growing popularity of a sort of “magical neuro-atypicality” trope.

423: The Gold Silkworm by Tony Pi - A tale or sorcerers and magical healers in a fantasy realm woven from Chinese threads. There was a lot of worldbuilding to integrate before the plot started to fall into place.

424: Betty And The Squelchy Saurus by Caroline M. Yoachim - What happens when the truce between children and the monsters under their beds is broken? The story might have been just the product of an overactive imagination...until we get the viewpoint of the monsters. A little bit on the precious side, but with enough threat of horror to cut that a bit. Not really my taste, though.

PodCastle 425: Flash Fiction Extravaganza! Transformations - A trio of short shorts around a theme

“Girl in Blue Dress (1881)” by Sunil Patel - An artist’s model raises questions of identity and individuality.

“Mirabilis” by  Shannon Peavey - Alas, I don’t remember this one.

“Portrait of My Wife as a Boat” by Samantha Murray - Uh...I think this one was about a woman who turns into a boat?

426: Sweeter Than Lead by Benjamin C. Kinney - Prophecies keep the empire safe, but the seers pay a deep price, not least that they can never explain themselves. How much of the rules they follow is necessary, and how much tradition? And what are the temptations for one who grows addicted to seeing the future? The story left me a bit meh--plots about true prophecy have a limited number of places they can go.

427: Squalor And Sympathy by Matt Dovey - Part of a growing sub-sub-genre sitting at the intersection of steampunk and the supernatural. How will it warp an industrial society if machines can be run literally on the misery of the workers? I really liked the way the premise was developed without being over-explained. Some of the wrap-up of the plot felt clunky, though.

428: Madame Félidé Elopes by K. A. Teryna translated by Anatoly Belilovsky - I don’t remember this one at all. I may have accidentally marked it read.

429: Wolfy Things by Erin Roberts - A slow inexhorable reveal of the true nature of a wolf hunt. One of those lovely unreliable narrators where the reader/listener stays half a step ahead of the protagonist, though you’re never entirely certain exactly what is going on. If you don’t mind a bit of violence, this makes an excellent listen.

430: Thundergod In Therapy by Effie Seiberg - Another one I don’t remember at all.

PodCastle Miniature 89: Lapis Lazuli by Tania Fordwalker - The knight facing the dragon to rescue the princess learns a lesson about tall poppy syndrome. Well, he would have if he’d survived. Fortunatly, our protagonist is his lowly squire... A bit predictable in the plot, but the nature of the monster (and thus how to defeat it) is a clever twist.

431: La Héron by Charlotte Ashley - A delightfuly twisty tale of forbidden duels and dangerous wagers. A woman arrives in town for the Black Bouts of Caen and picks up a pugnacious nun as her second. But a host of swordsmen from Faerie have arrived for the sport as well and no one is quite what they seem. This started out intriguing, slowed down a bit for the blow-by-blow, then took a sharp turn sideways at the end. Overall I enjoyed it quite a bit.

432: The Beautiful Bird Sits No Longer Singing In The Nest by Kate Lechler - What did the story of Jane Eyre look like from the point of view of the mad woman in the attic? It’s hard to classify this entirely as fantasy unless one takes her hallucinations of witches and transformations as literal. But an incisive picture of what madness looks like from the other side.

PodCastle Miniature 90: How To Survive In Room 105 by T. Jane Berry - Yet one more entry in the category of “humorous hijinks in a grade school classroom full of kids with super powers.” This genre just isn’t for me, I’m afraid. The joke always gets stretched too thin.

433: Telling Stories by Sandra M. Odell - A rather surreal Western involving the courtship of a saguaro cactus and a gila monster, mediated by an older woman with stories to tell and hidden regrets. The moral message of “love is love” felt overly telegraphed, but the details of the world and the creatures in it is well drawn and delightful.


434: The Ghost Years by Nghi Vo - Set amidst a war between China and Viet Nam in some alternate and lightly fantastic timeline, the story is primarily about memory and storytelling and how people exist only so far as we create them in our stories. Atmospheric and melancholy.


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