A Beach called Sunset: O'ahu Diary (Days 16-19)


It was boiling today in Halifax.  On the radio I heard a caller say, "32 degrees in the shade.  It's hotter than a two-dollar pistol." I dug my flip-flops out of the suitcase (still haven't unpacked, nearly a week home) and prepared to walk for an hour, swinging back and forth between various chores.  Sand still clung to them.  Putting them on, I ground Hawai'i into my soles for a moment, thinking.

It looks like I am a good month behind in my O'ahu diary.  And don't even get me started on my London journal, which would be really useful for my research if I could just transcribe it from a series of emphatic, illegible scribbles made in darkened theatres into something shaped more like a narrative.  But unlike my London diary, my O'ahu diary exists mostly in the form of pictures, without any accompanying text, so I have to hurry to get it down before it all slips away from me.

I mentioned in my last O'ahu diary that I was sick this week, so I didn't venture out much while D was at work, apart from a few Baroque sunset wanders.

But this was also the week that O'ahu began to prove what a very damp island it could be.  It rained with fair frequency for the last half of my five weeks on the island.  Never very hard, and never in weather cold enough to keep you from drying off in a matter of minutes.

And rarely did it rain without the sun blazing down at the same time.  It's hard to be upset about rain showers in Hawai'i, you see.  They always seem to be followed, like Iris dogging Zeus' steps, by rainbows.  Rainbows, single and double, faint and so vivid that you can make out every variation of color between orange and yellow, or indigo and violet.

This was the first of the rainbows we saw - D called me on the phone to tell me to look for it off our balcony, if I remember correctly.  Below it you can see the performance space where I was treated to my own microscopic luau several nights a week.

 When the weekend came, we headed back up the island to the point where the eastern shore becomes the North Shore.  The beach was called Sunset.  It dropped off suddenly from a windswept sand bluff into some fairly fierce waves.  About a hundred yards down from us, boys were riding their boards down the side of the bluff; they were already whirring with speed when they hit the tug of the wave.  The wind was harsh - when I came back from this beach, it took days to get the sand out of my ears and scalp.  I hadn't been in the water, and this never happened anywhere else.  I was just at the centre of my own private cyclone.

We wandered around the North Shore - it is traffic-clogged and beachy in the way I imagine Venice was when it was just on the edge of being "reclaimed" by hipster artists and television stars, but was still a land of skaters and surf shacks.  

And of course, it has what is reputed to be the finest shave ice - that quintessential dessert of O'ahu - on the island.  The line stretched out the door and around the corner, even in the rain. I recalled my mother's resolution never to wait in line for pizza (broken for the wonder that is New Haven-style pie), and wondered whether it would be worth the long damp wait.  I like my desserts a bit ... richer, I said to D afterward.  I'm not a hummingbird: there is only so much water and sugar I can consume by its lonesome. But when in Rome.  Shave ice, so I hear, is all about the texture. The finer the better, not at all grainy or harsh.  You get it in multiple flavors, carefully combined, with a trove of sweet red beans or vanilla soft-serve hidden at the bottom, mingling with the icy syrups.  I got honeydew, green apple, lilikoi.  D's choices, though more tropical, have not withstood the test of memory....

Sunday Salon: Jet Lag

Sunday is winding down, and I have been back in Nova Scotia for four whole days.  Jet lag still has me in its clutches, but today saw a major breakthrough: because I took a half an Ambien at 3:30 a.m. (a apocalyptic measure on my part), I only slept till noon, rather than till 3 p.m.  Progress is progress.

If I can just get back on some sort of a normal schedule, the week to come will be all about prepping for the fall semester and getting the house ready for visitors from the States (hurrah!).  But since I currently spend many, many more waking hours in the dark than in the sunlight, I am living an oddly hermetic life.  Good news for my watching and reading.  Bad news for all the work that needs to be done.


Yesterday, my cable company unexpectedly and abruptly added AMC to my line up.  Praise the television gods. So now I have access to Mad Men and Rubicon and all the other delights of the upcoming AMC-makes-a-play-to-be-the-next-HBO season.  Meanwhile, I have been catching up with The Pillars of the Earth, which is chock-a-block with spectacular actors, but has a general air of halfheartedness.  Everyone seems slightly uncomfortable - avoiding touching their elaborate wigs and dealing gingerly with their rather diminutive broadswords.

And I finally caught the last episode of the first season of Treme, which was slow and elegiac and underscored the fact that this is a show about place more than any other television show I can remember.  It is the city of New Orleans that has a drama, a conflict, an arc of development, more than any of the characters, who are just going through their normal (albeit post-cataclysmic) lives. Because of this, it is perfectly suited the the long format of television, while being utterly unlike the plot- and character-heavy conventions of television that I know and love.  It is fascinating.


How have I lived 'til now in ignorance of Pamplamoose?  Their videos are like what would happen if Michel Gondry (on a calm day) took to making YouTube videos for indie singer-songwriters in somebody's parents' den.  And if they had all somehow offended a hedge-witch, who placed a curse (a curse that was actually a blessing, naturally) upon them, condemning them to a lifetime of covers.

First, a classic:

But then, a song to spawn a million brilliant covers:

Notice how when she actually "puts her hands up" about three-quarters of the way through the song, she does it in a sort of "well, what are you going to do?  I know, I know..." gesture.  Love it.

And I couldn't let the week go by without sharing this other piece of retro wit that refuses to be evicted from my brain space (be wary of adult language here): 


On the airplanes coming home (I had two long-haul flights, Honolulu to Los Angeles to Newark) and one short one (Newark to Halifax), I got a fair amount of reading done, finishing off Kathryn Miller Haines's mouthy mystery of wartime New York, The War Against Miss Winter, on the first flight and John Marsden's The Dead of Night on the second.  The heroine of Haines's novel is an aspiring actress on a forties Broadway that is overburdened with women and rather short on men, so she takes a side job as the assistant to a private eye.  But then one day she shows up to work to find her boss dead...

The Dead of Night is the second in Marsden's series about a dystopian Australia, which an unnamed nation has invaded and is brutally colonizing.  The novel follows a group of teenagers who happened to be on a camping trip in the bush during the invasion, and who now feel like the only guerrilla resistance to the obliteration of everything they once loved.  It is an unusually detailed, practical approach to the question of war, and exactly what it is that teenagers are capable and willing to do for love of the abstract conception of country and the wrenchingly absent idea of community.

When I got home, I immediately devoured the second volume of the fascinating manga Ooku: The Inner Chambers. More on that here.

I am in the middle of three books right now.  First,  George Elliot Clarke's searing, furious, Nova Scotian poetry cycle, Blue, which I have come back to along with my Haligonian home. Next, The Masque of the Black Tulip, which Lauren Willig wrote while finishing her doctorate in history and plowing her way through law school.  This makes me think that I could be doing a lot more with my days if I woke up before noon.  It is a double tale of a modern graduate student, pursuing a rich archive for her dissertation research in the house of an unusually attractive aristocrat, and the group of anti-Napoleonic spies who are the subjects of that archive.  The third book is another Nova Scotian epic - Anne-Marie MacDonald's Fall on your Knees - which swept me up in its world immediately and convinced me (a few dozen pages in) that nothing good will ever happen to any of its characters.  Sigh.

Off I go to post this while there are still a few moments left in this Sunday, although many hours before I get tired.... Happy Sunday, Saloners.

2010 Young Adult Reading Challenge [Updated]

[Original Post: November 23, 2009, Updated: August 28, 2010, challenge halfway done]

The second, equally pleasurable challenge I have decided to join is J. Kaye's 2010 Young Adult Reading Challenge.  My shelves are full of YA books I am longing to read, and they could always be fuller.

The rules are as follows:

1. Anyone can join. You don't need a blog to participate.

     --Non-Bloggers: Post your list of books in the comment section of the wrap-up post. To learn how to sign up without having a blog, click here.

2. There are four levels:

     --The Mini YA Reading Challenge – Read 12 Young Adult novels.

     --Just My Size YA Reading Challenge – Read 25 Young Adult novels.

     --Stepping It Up YA Reading Challenge – Read 50 Young Adult novels.

     --Super Size Me YA Reading Challenge – Read 75 Young Adult novels.

3. Audio, eBooks, paper all count.

4. No need to list your books in advance. You may select books as you go. Even if you list them now, you can change the list if needed.

5. Challenge runs January 1st through December, 2010.

I will be attempting the "Just My Size" Challenge, and I will post my progress here once the Challenge begins.

Click here if you are interested in joining the Young Adult Reading Challenge.

My progress to date (Original post was 11/23/09):
  1. Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden (1996, Australia) ***1/2, finished January 4.
  2. Sabriel by Garth Nix (1995, Australia) ***, finished March 12. 
  3. What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell (2008, USA) ***, finished March 13. 
  4. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (2008, Australia) ****, finished April 21.
  5. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008, UK/USA) ***1/2, finished May 30.
  6. Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder (2005, USA) ***1/2, finished July 4.
  7. The Princess and the Hound by Mette Ivie Harrison (2007, USA) ***, finished July 10. 
  8. Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder (2006, USA) ***, finished July 14.
  9. House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer (2002, USA) ***1/2, finished July 21. 
  10. Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett (1987, UK) ***, finished August 8.
  11. Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty (2000, Australia) ***, finished August 12.
  12. The China Garden by Liz Berry (1996, UK) ***1/2, finished August 17. 
  13. The Dead of Night by John Marsden (1994, Australia) ***1/2, finished August 25.

D, triumphant: O'ahu Diary (Day the last)

(I am skipping ahead through my O'ahu diary to bring you this very important update.)

The day before I left Waikiki, D turns to me and says, "You know what my biggest regret is?".

"What?" I reply tentatively, since the mood of this last day has been melancholy, to say the least.

"Five weeks you have been here, and I have never gotten you a lei."

"Um," I brilliantly riposte. "Have you been reading my blog?" (I had posted this late the previous night.)

"No," he says, offhandedly.  Then, suspiciously, "Why?".

"No reason...."

He whisked me off to the florist, post-haste. "I look forward to seeing what you choose," I told him.  I don't say anything more to him, because that's the kind of testing nightmare of a beloved I can be, but secretly, I hoped he would choose one based on scent rather than appearance.  Really I am giddy about getting a lei at all, just as I had resigned myself to flowerlessness.

He emerges a few minutes later and hands me a box.  As I open it, he says, "It wasn't the most beautiful one there, but I smelled them all, and this one was the best."  I grin at him.

And then I don't take it off for the rest of my time in Hawaii.

Sexual Ethics - Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Volumes 1 and 2

(Jet lag is always worst for me on my second day in a new time zone - when there isn't any travel exhaustion to lure me into sleep - and it turns out that the shift seven time zones to the east is a particular variety of awful.  Last night I didn't get to sleep until almost 7 a.m. (it wasn't just that I saw the dawn, but that I heard all my neighbors get up and go to work before falling asleep), and I slept until 3 p.m.  Brutal. Silver lining: I am getting a lot of reading done, albeit in a dazed, inattentive sort of way.  Last night I swept through the rest of Grave Goods, the third installment of Ariana Franklin's "Mistress of the Art of Death" series.  Gripping. Anxiety-inducing.  And the anxieties have more to do with choices that the heroine, Adelia, makes to pursue happiness as they do with the corpses and psychopaths that litter her path.

Having finished that, I organized all the books on my bedside table and all the books I had brought home from my travels into a strict reading rotation: one slow read / one fast read, cycling through fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and mystery, romance and comics, and interlarding this rotation with Canadian fiction at regular intervals.

Still not tired.

So I picked up the second volume in Fumi Yoshinaga's manga cycle, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, which is the perfect combination of captivating intrigue and thoughtfully paced artwork to soothe the insomniac fever.)

The facts as I know them are these: when the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty came to power in Japan in the early 17th century, he began putting into place a series of isolationist policies.  His grandfather had emerged victorious from a long period of civil turmoil, and had instituted the shogunate, a centralizing authority based on military power that (putatively) administered the workings of all Japan at the request of the imperial family.  The centre of power shifted from Kyoto (the site of the royal court) to Edo, and the political emphasis leaned to stability and unity - of religion, of mercantile interests, and of civic and military power.   European traders and missionaries were increasingly distrusted for their destabilizing influence, and in the 1630s Iemetsu enacted a series of reforms that insulated his country almost totally from their influence.  Traders are restricted to a single island, and to dealings with a short list of approved families.  Citizens must affirm their loyalty to established Japanese faiths.  No one may enter or leave Japan without permission, and those who leave must expect never to come back.

What Fumi Yoshinaga attempts in her manga is not so much a full-fledged alternate history (how would things have gone differently if "X" had or hadn't happened?) as an alternate explanation of the history (let's imagine why this historical turn occurred).  The question of why Japan had to be so firmly closed off - one might even say quarantined - from outside influences and inquiries lurks in the background of this series.

The first volume, which I read in July while in Washington, DC and (alas) left there temporarily in the interest of lightening my luggage, lays out the core of this alternate causality, and it is a bit of a comics classic: an unknown source brings a strange plague to the island of Japan - the red pox - and it spreads quickly among the men, killing mostly the young swiftly and more than decimating the male population.  Those of you who have read Y: The Last Man (or The Knife of Never Letting Go) may find this a familiar premise - the crucial difference is that this plague doesn't seem to obliterate a whole gender, but rather radically diminishes its numbers.

The importance of this shift in the ratio of men to women soon becomes clear. Some years later we find a nation in which the gender map of social hierarchy has been inverted. Since the men haven't been totally wiped out, what happens is an alteration in the economics of gender.  Women are now the labor force, and both families and governmental structures have become matriarchal.  Men are prized, but not for themselves so much as what they carry in their pants.  They are regarded as creatures too delicate and precarious for harsh treatment, and much is done to preserve their value.  But their value is utterly alienated from any sense of autonomy, any right to choose their actions or how they will contribute to the common wealth of family and nation, any sense that an individual man can pursue his personal happiness.  Matriarchs regularly sell their sons' sexual services - temporarily or permanently - to the highest bidder to support the family. Marriage (which ties male procreative potential to a single womb) becomes the province of only the wealthiest families, those who can buy their daughters the exclusive rights to a man's bed. Poorer women muster their savings to afford a night at a brothel, and the hope that they might conceive.

Early in the first volume, the hero (Mizuno, a breathtakingly beautiful youth) talks about his charms with a childhood friend from a rich merchant family.  We all know of your skills with women, she tells him, but I also know that you always choose to sleep with women who are getting older and can't afford the brothels.  This type of heroism - sexuality as generosity of spirit - is unusual in romance or any other genre of literature I have read, and it is one that we see over and over again in the first two volumes of Ooku.  In a readerly world in which sexual restraint and fidelity are exalted (while sexual profligacy is often secreted envied and admired) this is a new model of ethical sexuality: a restraint based on choosing, not a single partner, but a partner who needs you most.  And we frequently stumble upon situations in which a major character is forced into sexual encounters or sexual identities against his or her will (the setting is a harem, after all), and must choose a way of coming to terms with the situation which preserves personal ethics, and with them, a sense of self.

It soon emerges that Mizuno's childhood friend is madly in love with him, but her wealthy family feels she could make a more advantageous match, so she is left to watch him bestow his generosity on poorer, more desperate women.  Despite a rakish bravado, Mizuno loves her as well, but since he cannot have her, he chooses to join the Ooku, the inner chambers of the Shogun's palace where the leader's sexual attendants are cloistered.  This is a bit of status maneuvering for him and his family: he is outflanking his mother's attempts to force him into profitability for the family by asserting his autonomous ambition.  He will choose, instead of having his fate thrust upon him (as Malvolio might have put it), to become a member of the elite group of those who give their sexual bodies to the state itself.  It conveys great honour on the family, while allowing him to pick his poison.

The shogun, like almost everyone else in a position of power at this point, is female, and thus the Ooku is filled with men.  Catty, backstabbing, politicking men.  The fact that the current shogun is just a child doesn't dull this poisonous atmosphere.  In fact, because the shogun never calls upon their services, and no other woman is permitted into the Ooku, it just means that they are more likely to turn to rape as an instrument of domination. (Or so they claim - I am not sure that certain members of the Inner Chambers wouldn't have turned to this tactic without any excuse at all, simply out of unbridled cruelty.)  I became uncomfortable at a certain point in the first volume, thinking that homosexuality would be portrayed as almost synonymous with violence and degradation, but, as with the treatment of gender differences, Yoshinaga's approach to the issue is more indirect and complex than I anticipated.  Of course, she asserts, an insular society of men (one as cut off from the rest of Japan as the female-dominated insula of Japan is from the rest of the world) yields violence and specifically the violence of sexual frustration, but it also produces bonds of profound affection and longing.  And sexual generosity operates within these bonds as well.   Still, I hope to see relationships between men in future volumes that are not based in either cruelty or a sort of affectionate pity.

After the first volume, I had a few qualms. First among them (and shared by almost all of the English readers whose comments and reviews I have read) is a discomfort with the diction of the translation.  The Japanese is rendered in a sort of Renaissance Faire English which is almost unbearably clumsy.  Luckily this fades into a gentler archaism in the second volume. Secondly, the first volume sets up a compelling story - about the brash Mizuno and the impossibility of his childhood love - and then resolves it with shocking swiftness by the end of the first volume, abandoning these characters just as we were getting to know them.  Their romance seems short-changed, and I found myself wondering why I had even bothered getting to know Mizuno if he was going to prove so unimportant to the ongoing story of the Inner Chambers.  Perhaps if this had been a one-off middle volume I would have felt less like the victim of a bait-and-switch.

At the end of the first volume, a new and dynamic shogun has come to power, and she is driven by an unprecedented curiosity about why the customs of the shogunate have ossified in the particular way they have.  Why, for instance, does she have to dress in men's clothing when receiving the rare and highly-guarded diplomatic envoys that make their way from other countries?  She seeks out the archives of the shogunate, and begins to read about the origins of the Red Pox-scarred society.

The second volume takes up this tale-within-a-tale from years before, choosing as its peep-hole into history the experience of a nobleman-turned-Buddhist-abbot in the age of Iemetsu, the first shogun to see the land ravaged by the Red Pox.  Prior Arikoto is a man of striking beauty but also untouchable holiness, and he has high hopes for the good he can do now that he is finally ascending to a position of some prominence in the clergy.  He goes to present his credentials to the shogun, as is customary, and is shocked when he is ordered to extend his stay.  He will be joining the Ooku, he is told, to be one of Iemetsu's catamites.  His carefully phrased excuses are not accepted, and he is forced to break his vows of celibacy with a courtesan in the most brutal way.  Finally he is taken to the Inner Chambers, where he becomes one of only a handful of men who know that Iemetsu is dead, and the shogunate is being held by his illegitimate daughter until such a time as she can finally produce a male heir.

The characterization is deeper here, although it covers some of the same ethical ground (how to maintain an integrity of self when one's right to sexual autonomy is infringed or even removed), and these story arcs (thank goodness) look like they will last over at least one more book.  But I was still perturbed by one scene, at the end of the novel (skip to the next section if you are feeling spoiler-shy today), when Arikoto finally submits to the shogun and the manner in which he does it is clearly intended to be transgressive.  To punish the arrogance of the inner circle of men who know who she actually is and fail to respect her as a shogun because of her gender, the rather petulant shogun (she has no name, since she is merely a vessel for the next male leader) demands that they all attend her wearing women's garments. She is dressed, of course, in her customary boy's clothes, lest anyone catch a glimpse of her and know that the nation is lacking masculine leadership.  She humiliates the men who have presumed a gendered superiority to her, asserting through the crudest symbolism that, whatever they may say, it is she who holds all the power.

But then Arikoto walks in wearing his female garments and he looks ... impeccable. As stunning a courtesan as she is a boy.  And he proceeds to give her a seductive speech in which he lays out his new calling.  He had believed that he was fated to bring solace to many through religion; now he sees that he was put on this earth for a much more focused purpose.
"Why did I not see what was so plain?  I can provide succor to one person in this world, and to one person alone.  And that person, the one I was born into this world to help, was right in front of me all this time."
The volume winds to its close with her weeping uncontrollably in his arms, as he murmurs, "How lovely she is, my lord and master." On the final page, a real stunner, they cling to each other, and the text reads, "It was a love that began like two cold, hurt, bedraggled chicks huddling together for warmth."

You will get no complaints to me about that last page - it is flawless in tone and execution.  But I worry that the scene that precedes it is too convinced of its own transgressions, when in fact it just affirms very established gendered codes.  The shogun, dressed and addressed as a man and a lord, punishes her upstart underlings with a forced feminization.  The only one who escapes humiliation is Arikoto, and he successfully resists it by being sincerely feminine - lovelier than anyone else in the room in a costume and elaborate make-up that do not read as falsehood.  And why can he do that? Because he has come to the room with the intention of submitting, of dedicating his life to a single being (not himself, by the by) and to the act of caretaking. Hmm.  The troubling of this association between femininity and caring submission comes in the final panels, when it is the dominant party (the shogun herself) who breaks down in tears and requires the strength that underlies that seeming passivity.  And why does she break down?  Because she is an overwhelmed, underloved teenaged girl, for all the power she wields.  Complex, but not revolutionary.

Righto.  Return to me now, ye spoiler-shy.

Awards have showered down on this series all over the world, praising it for the quality of its aesthetics and its nuanced treatment of gender and sexuality.  The publishers note how unusual a phenomenon it is - it fits into none of the gendered genres of manga, refuses a rushed reading, and appeals equally to Western comics readers and manga aficionados.

I  myself am not an experienced reader of manga, apart from a few Osamu Tezuka classics and some Western imitators along the lines of Scott Pilgrim. In fact, I found myself attending to the visual composition of Ooku much more appreciatively than I normally do (to my shame) with Western comics, because I had to be constantly vigilant about the way I was reading to keep myself from falling back into old habits like starting at the left-hand side of the page or turning the pages right to left.  And it was worth it: as a visual phenomenon, this is an elegant work.  The edition is poetically beautiful, with richly textured black endpapers and a semi-transparent title page.  It is a finely paced work, visually, managing the reader's attention by enforcing reflective pauses as characters come to slow realizations over several panels. And it punctuates the romances in both volumes with whole-page, climactic moments of iconic sweep - the characters caught up in a whirl of robes and emotions - that rival the highlights of classic Hollywood love.

I have the next volume on my bedside table, and the fourth one on order. The fifth is due to come out in December.  The series, which I understand will be ten volumes long, is still unfinished even in Japanese.  Although I quibble with aspects of it above, I can't help but give it this compliment: it is a rich and thoughtful world, so much so that I argued ethics with myself continually as I read.  Seek it out, and let me know what you think.  It is certainly worth it.

Note that it is almost 3:30 a.m. as I post this. Ah jet lag - when will you release me from your sleepless clutches?

The True North Strong and Free

It was a couple of harried days of travel, in which I slept more on airplanes than I did in beds, but now I am back at home in Halifax.  Bliss.

Canada welcomed me home by raining steadily for twenty-four hours.

Or maybe it is just the affective fallacy.  For as glad as I am to be home, I am feeling a bit morose about the prospect of being separated from D until October. I have been staving off despair with the third "Mistress of the Art of Death" novel, Grave Goods, which is delectably gripping so far.  I mean, the corpses of Arthur and Guinevere just made an appearance.  Perfect airplane-endurance reading, it drags you in and doesn't let you go.

In Sycorax's further adventures in casting off loneliness and jet lag, I have been catching up on So You Think You Can Dance, Eh? (as I like to call the Canadian member of the franchise).  I thought this season of the American version of the show was the dullest on record, so I am already impressed by how much more diverse the Toronto finals were than the Vegas contemporary blandfest.  So far I have seen a belly-dancer and a male Irish dancer put straight through to the finals without having to go to the choreography callbacks.  That would never have flown on the American version, and I love that it does here.

And speaking of things that would never have happened across the border, how about this hip-hopper:

He made it through two rounds in the Toronto finals, and the judges, weeping, only eliminated him because they anticipated difficulty in judging his partner fairly in the ballroom round.

There are some phenomenal tappers.  Last year, before Russell's season even aired in the States, if I remember correctly, both a krumper and a tapper made it far into SYTYCD, Eh?. The Canadian audience seems less entrenched in the idea that contemporary is the standard from which all other genres fall away.

In the final twenty-two, the contestants who actually made it into the competition proper, there is a man who specializes in Ukrainian dance (he is one of two Ukrainian-Canadians in the top 22), a Cuban-Quebecois salsa dancer who didn't have enough English fluency to understand Mia Michaels when she told him he was "unique," and a breaker/ballet dancer from my home province.  It is wholly engrossing - a little rougher around the edges than the American show, but a hundred times fresher.

In the first week of So You Think You Can Dance, Eh? I have already seen a dance I like better than all but five minutes of the whole last season of the American show.  But: Boo to the rampant product placement in this season.  It is so tacky, it makes me want never to purchase any of these products ever again.

Why I love True Blood, despite its failings

Do I gather from tonight's episode that vampire Pam is descended from John of Gaunt and his third wife Katherine Swynford?  Her last name is given for the first time in tonight's episode as Pamela Swynford de Beaufort, and Beaufort is the name given to Katherine and John's legitimized children after their marriage.

This fills me with glee, and makes me want reread one of my favorite historical romances, Anya Seton's Katherine, which tells the tale of how the middle class Katherine (who was Chaucer's sister-in-law, intriguingly) becomes the mistress and eventually the wife of the most powerful man in England, perhaps even more powerful than the king himself. If memory serves, it is totally enthralling - I am still struck by it vividly fifteen years after reading it.

But linking Pam to that tumultuous medieval romance - I wonder what Alan Ball and Co. are up to....

The Lady likes a Lei: O'ahu Diary (Days 13 through 15)

Just a little insight into the daily crazy that D endures: I am convinced that if you actually request a lei, it undercuts all the pleasure of being given a lei.  A lei, in my mind, must be freely bestowed in order to be infused with the spirit of aloha.  The result?  Nary a lei has graced my neck in five weeks of Hawaiian residence.  Poor D, every time we encounter a lei-seller, turns to me expectantly, with the words "Would you like a lei?" tripping off his lips.  And I, mysteriously, say no, looking dejectedly at the ground.  He must be totally perplexed by now.

You might be asking yourself why I don't just say, "Surprise me with one." But this question would show a remarkable lack of crazy-literacy.  All crazy-aficionados know that this would be like a meta-request for a lei, undermining all future lei offers.  You might also ask yourself what D will say when he reads this blog entry after I have left O'ahu.  I think I might characterize his future response as "extreme frustration."  But don't worry, D - I wasn't torn up about it.  I made my own floral way around the island.  And when I think of flowers as gifts, I can't ever help but think of Dorothy Parker, whose birthday it is today:

A single flower he sent me since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet-
One perfect rose.

I know the language of the floweret;
"My fragile leaves," it said, "his heart enclose."
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Even excluding leis (and I do love a lei), O'ahu is an island of flowers.  Intense, expansive flowers.

Notice how the center of this flower glows. I am not ruling out "alien life form" as a possibility.

I fell ill this week, so I wasn't good for much but the occasional wander through the gardens around the hotel and stroll around the nearby beaches.  But, as it turned out, there was plenty to see there, if you focused on the details.  It was then that I noticed, for instance, that a man in full Hawaiian costume comes around every evening just before sunset and lights all the torches that surround the hotel.  Or that the flowers in the gardens are somehow constantly in bloom.  How do they manage it?

Even the food sometimes has a bit of a floral leaning...

We had our best meal on the island (including this dish - was it ginger and panko crusted onaga?  I can't quite remember) this week at Alan Wong's, which I gather was at the forefront of Hawai'i's great local food movement a decade and a half ago.  D started with a plate of Chinatown Roast Duck Nachos that featured ten-inch antennae that may have been transmitting reports on us to the mother ship (or possibly to that flower at the top of this post), and followed them with a steak showdown between two local beef ranches.  I had the five course tasting menu (when I was little we used to call this the "little pig" menu, when contrasted with the "big pig" seven course menu) which included, among other things, a Pacific lobster on a truffle puree..  Let me tell you, this is another beastie entirely from the delectable Nova Scotia weight-lifters I'm used to.  But a lobster in the hand is worth two in Halifax:  it was delicious.  I can't lie, however: my heart still belongs to Atlantic lobster and Maryland crabs.  Roam though I may, I am a girl of strong culinary loyalties.

Truth to tell, our meal was exceptional from start to finish, but the highlight was the drinks menu.  We are neither great drinkers of alcohol nor caffeine, but I have to say that the sweet honey tea was one of the most instantly addicting drinks I have ever tasted.  When we went to Wong's other Honolulu restaurant, The Pineapple Room, a few weeks later, I tried another of his signature drinks, a watermelon lilikoi mojito made with various savory herbs, and was almost as smitten.

Some weeks after that, D and I have come to a well-fed conclusion: we miss the gym.  I have formulated a challenge for us which will go something like this: in the thirty days after I return to Halifax, we must spend at least twenty hours apiece in cardio exercise. If any one of us manages thirty hours in that thirty days, however, we can claim a reward.  Mine, I have decided, will be the complete DVD edition of The Wire, which you can get for quite a discount nowadays.  D is still plotting what his choice will be....

The Quick and the Deadwood: Full Faith and Credit (3.4)

Al:   "Another invite.  Fucking Hearst. Must take me for a fucking optimist."

Just a few scattered notes on the fourth episode of Deadwood's last season, since I neglected this post for too long a time after watching to give you more holistic coverage.  George Hearst would never tolerate that sort of sloppiness.  I'd better watch my back.

This week we see various explorations of belief (or lack thereof) in word or promise - faith and credit - as Alma opens the town's first bank, Hearst continues to dally with Al in the most threatening and condescending way, and Joanie receives a genial offer from the actor-manager Langrishe for the whorehouse-turned-schoolhouse that sets last week's rape-tinged encounter between Alma and Hearst into stark relief.

We get a trace of Al's back-story, in the middle of another surprisingly tender scene between him and a much blustered-at whore.  (Whores are always falling for Al in a Stockholm syndrome sort of way.  And many of his best "soliloquies" are in fact delivered in company - in the midst of less than engrossing blowjobs.) His mother left him at an orphanage when she went to sell her body in Louisiana - he recalls being held down by an orphanage owner while she screamed from the boat that she had changed her mind, hence his mania for freedom. With this comes the realization - fleeting - that he denies his whores exactly that freedom.  He holds them down, both figuratively and literally.

There are continuing racial tensions with the return of Deadwood's two black residents, Samuel Fields and Hostetler, bringing the horse that killed Bullock's nephew/stepson.  Steve the Drunk, who has been caring for the hostelry in Hostetler's absence (having threatened him with lynching if he stayed), spews uninterrupted racist bile for much of the beginning of the episode.  Bullock, who is stuck mediating the issue, deals with Steve's drunken tirade with considerably more patience than any modern sheriff would.

This highlights the canniness of Deadwood's treatment of the conflict: it would be historically implausible for Bullock to come to Hostetler's defense on an abstract foundation of civil rights principles (although the sheriff is allowed enough enough basic goodness to show frustration with Steve's racist paranoia).  Instead, the show permits him to develop an impatience with Steve's irrational rage and suspicion, especially as contrasted with Hostetler's saintly forbearance.  He sympathizes with Hostetler because Steve is an unreasoning, uncompromising jackass, rather than because Steve is a racist.  However, with irksome neutrality, Bullock doesn't allow this leaning to influence the outcome of the conflict, which seems to me to favor the Drunk.  Alma's bank gives Steve a loan, allowing him to buy the hostelry from under Hostetler.  It seems fortuitous to me that Hostetler actually wants to sell and get out of town; otherwise, this would look considerably more like an eminent domain-type forced sale, using racism to deprive a black citizen of the right to ownership.  Not to say ethnic cleansing, since the deal assumes (rightly) that Hostetler won't want to stay in a camp that tolerates and even rewards the Drunk's rhetoric.  Deadwood seems destined for racial homogeny, and a sameness that privileges the more idiotic facets of the populace while eliminating the more sensible.

The most interesting facet of this episode (both within the world of the narrative, and as a meta-issue regarding representing historicized racial conflict to a modern audience) is the difficulty of Hostetler's position.  He deals honorably with his responsibility for the horse that killed the boy, telling Bullock that he and he alone must bear the consequences of the horse getting free.  He thanks the prickly, bilious Steve for caring for the hostelry in his absence, and explains why he ran in fear of his life. But in the face of an avalanche of hateful bigotry from Steve the Drunk, his goodness begins to seem... passive.  Both to him and to us.  How do you maintain dignity in this face of this kind of treatment? Does non-violence and rationality fail when your opponent refuses to play by the rules of reason and justice?

Take a look at Todd VanDerWerff's brilliant essays about the final season at the AV Club - I will link to them in my future posts.  In his first entry, he discusses the effect of the show's fuzzy cancellation on its original reception ("HBO had always prided itself on being the place for TV creators with something to say could turn to say what they needed to, but it also was a business, and Deadwood was just the most notable example of a show that probably would have continued had it debuted even a few seasons earlier but got caught under the aegis of a network in transition.") and what distinguishes the tone of Season 3 from its predecessors:
If season one of Deadwood is its most self-consciously mythic season and season two is about humanizing and expanding on those myths, season three is the series’ most self-consciously humanistic season. 
His second post takes up "True Colors" and "Full Faith and Credit" ("maybe the most rage-filled episode of Deadwood (no easy feat)"), and ponders whether Deadwood doesn't struggle, at this point, from a plague (a veritable surfeit) of characters.

Or, of course, you could read Sycorax Pine on

Shifting my Associates Allegiance to Indie Bookstores

Normally all associates links to books, films, and television from Sycorax Pine will take you to Amazon, where (should you choose to buy something), I will get a tiny percentage off that purchase to spend on books.

Shop Indie BookstoresJust today, however, I received news that my affiliate membership at Indiebound.org is good to go.  Indiebound works on the same premise as Amazon, but if you click through on its links, you will be able to purchase books directly from your local independent bookstore, rather than a big national chain. 

I use Amazon pretty extensively, but whenever possible I prefer to channel money into the local bookstore of my youthful devotion (Politics and Prose in Washington, DC) or its brethren in the various cities I have lived and visited.  So this seems like an ideal solution to the dominance that Amazon has had among blogs like this one. 

I am going to try Indiebound out to make sure that it functions as smoothly as Amazon, but I will tentatively set out this plan: from here on out, all associate links to books from this blog will point you towards Indiebound.  All associate links to films, television shows, and other non-bookish materials that I think you might like to get a hold of will still take you to Amazon.

Has anyone else tried out Indiebound yet, as a purchaser or an Associate? What did you think?

Hulk, hookahs, and curses: An Enthusiasm of Links

The Hulk is on Twitter, in many forms.  But did you know he is a feminist?

Not to mention a Buddhist?
You might think that a commitment to smash would be the antithesis of Buddhism, but in fact it is the ultimate expression of detachment from the material world.  Think on't.

*    *    *

The only thing that tempers my enthusiasm for Benjamin Andrews's Bookah is the knowledge that it only confirms D's worst suspicions about the nature of my book addiction.
If there is a tangible gain from the physicality of a book, then Bookah surely benefits the reader to an unprecedented extent. By concentrating the scent of 31 old books into a confined space, the much-praised aspect of the physical book is exaggerated to embody consumer technology's tendency to fetishize simple pleasures. The fact that you can't already buy the Bookah is really quite surprising. Here knowledge is contained within the sterile white walls of a modern product and powerfully ingested by the user, albeit in a hopelessly ineffective way. 

*    *    *

Got Medieval has been exploring how medieval bookmakers combated piracy.  With a good book curse.
 For a book curse is essentially the same as that little FBI warning that pops up whenever you try to watch a movie: a toothless text charm included by the media's maker meant to frighten the foolish. The charm only works if you believe that words are special, potent magic.
Here's how they went:
Should anyone by craft of any device whatever abstract this book from this place may his soul suffer, in retribution for what he has done, and may his name be erased from the book of the living and not recorded among the Blessed.
See what they did there? Steal a book, have your name removed from the book.

*    *    *

My friend Lara (whom I have known since we were four and shared a kindergarten class, as well as birthdays a mere two days apart) is a brilliant photographer, most often of luminous botanical subjects.  She has just opened an Etsy shop: go check it out.  My favorite of her pieces is "Lotus Petal Curve."

*    *    *

I've been telling everyone I can grab ahold of and mutter to about the Yojimbo influence on Avatar: The Last Airbender. So it seems that the least I can do is link to this recent AV Club overview of the work of the great Akira Kurosawa.

*    *    *

My bibliophile nature may cause a terrible outbreak of hives every time I hear about unwanted remnants of library sales being left in a dumpster, but in general I am not a fetishizer of the intact book.  I write in my books (although almost always in pencil, ever since I came to rue the plentiful inked exclamations from my college years - "Irony!" was the most common), and I like a book that shows the wear of my ownership at least as well as one that is pristine.  I often buy books used, and although I usually try to buy them as unmarked as possible, I have been known to delight in reading the marginalia of my predecessors, as I did with Jim the Boy.  I recently bought a collection of academic essays at a very reasonable price, only to discover that it had been previously owned by a prominent scholar in my field (the binding falls open naturally to her essay in the volume, but that isn't the only way I identified the book as hers).  She has written hilarious (and intimidating) little judgments on all of the other essays ("Provocative, until the cutesie ending," reads one), and goes so far (post-publication, I have to add) as to copy-edit the phrasing of some of her colleagues' prose.

At any rate, the point is that I love the book as material object almost as much as I love it as a container of knowledge and narrative,  and (rare books aside) I am intrigued by the ways we as readers and users add to and alter the value of the volume as art object or cultural artifact.  So I always enjoy pieces like this one at the New York Times about unusual uses for books.

The Roosters Know What's at the End of the Rope: O'ahu Diary (Days 11 through 13)

Hmm.  I've fallen terribly behind on my O'ahu diary, I'm afraid.  Chock it up to the combination of sun-induced lacksadaisia and a looming article deadline.  OK: casting my mind back to several weeks ago, when I left off.

We had better luck escaping Honolulu on our second attempt, D's next day off.  This time we ventured straight up the windward side (the island's eastern coast) to a beach in the Mormon town of Laie.

After the crowded shores of Waikiki, where the sea is lovely and the smooth sand is obscured by all the bodies lounging, flirting, playing, drinking, smoking on it, the beach around Laie was just how I like it: deserted.

It was also, sad to say, quite dirty - it must be a trick of the tide, but huge swathes of sand were marred by trashy flotsam.  Not, luckily, the section where I camped out in the sun with my books and my tube of SPF 70.

D has been reading too many Hawai'i Five-O scripts at his job, with the unfortunate effect that, where I see sun-bleached beach towns and family picnics, he sees opportunities for police intervention.  When he cautioned me to choose our beach carefully, lest we become embroiled in a local gang war, I knew he needed a day off to swim in the ocean.  And there he is, a tiny speck in the first photo, having his first total submersion in the Pacific ocean on this trip.

The beach, I hasten to tell you, is patrolled not by the 5-0 nor by rival gangs but by a group of extremely territorial roosters.  Chickens seem right at home in the sand, to my surprise.

I continue my evening walks all week along Waikiki beach, tucking a flower behind my ear each evening and seeing how far I get before it flies off into the surf.  Sometimes D is still at work at my preferred sunset hour, but sometimes he comes with, exhausted.

Every once in a while we remember that we are on LOST's terra natalis, usually when we see a rope, half-buried in the sand, leading off God-knows-where. "You know what's at the end of that?" I say to D, "Alison Janney in a toga."

The evening's the most peaceful time, especially around the lagoon outside of our hotel, where the water is somehow colder than the actual ocean fifty feet away.  Every day I see a different bride being led out to have her wedding photograph taken here, and I wonder about the industry of the image - all this endless sameness on what is supposed to be (surely) a unique day.

But it's a hard image to resist, eh?

Sunday Salon: On Water- and Bookbending

This is my last  week in Hawai'i, more or less.  A week from Tuesday I head back to Nova Scotia via Los Angeles to prepare for the start of the Fall term.   D has been asked to stay on indefinitely, which has him feeling a bit morose. ("Don't say this is your last week in Hawai'i," he just moaned, reading over my shoulder, "You should stay for, um, nineteen weeks.")

This has been a week of blog absence, since I have been hard at work on a set of article revisions that were due on Friday.  For perhaps the first time in my life as an academic, I actually got the revisions in several hours ahead of the deadline, an achievement which is undercut somewhat by the fact that Hawai'i is several hours behind the rest of the U.S.

My favorite tidbit, culled from the research I did for this article?  John Huston collaborated with Jean-Paul Sartre on an early version of the script for his 1962 biopic Freud, which starred the great (always a bit ambivalent and haunted) Monty Clift as the father of psychoanalysis.  Later Sartre would renounce all connection to the film, but in these early stages he and Huston were filled with enthusiasm for casting Marilyn Monroe as a patient of Freud's.  She refused the role - because her own analyst had qualms about the potential heterodoxy of the work, which hadn't been approved by Anna Freud (herself a major figure in psychiatry). I've got to get my hands on this film.

OK: I need to seek your advice on a problem that arose while I was working.  Since I am traveling, for the first time I bought a bunch of relevant academic texts in ebook format (either for the Kindle or the Barnes and Noble reader), and I was delighted by how affordable they were - $9.99 for academic tomes. Giddy, I tell you.

But there was trouble in e-Paradise. First of all, since I read Kindle books on my Mac, I can't highlight, annotate or search those works.  Why, Amazon, would you release a reader without these features?  Boo.  But more worrisome still is the problem of citation: page numbers on ebooks don't match the print edition, and Kindle books don't use page numbering at all.  Instead they have Kindle locations, which are stable (they don't change when you alter the size of the font or page), but require your reader to own the Kindle edition if they are to follow your citation.  Hmm.  Not exactly a research practice that is broadly transparent. Normally, I would prefer to cite hard copies of books, because this still carry the greatest "authority" in profession publications (and will until the citation problem has been fixed - this is the only thing that I can think of, besides Luddite snobbery, that is standing in the way), but there is one book that the University of Hawai'i doesn't own in hard copy that I need to use.  I even tried the old stand-by of using Google Books to sync the location of my ebook quotation with its page in the paper edition, but this volume can't be previewed in Google Books.  (Seriously, checking the accuracy of your citations is so much less time-consuming in the age of Google Books. Oh, the glories of being an internet-age scholar.)  So here's my question: have any of you used ebooks (and specifically Kindle books) for academic purposes?  How do you going about citing them? (I am talking here about footnotes or parenthetical citations, rather than bibliographic entries, which are fairly simple.)

So, I sent the article off on Friday, and we headed off to Oahu's North Shore to celebrate.  We visited the Byodo-In Temple on the way (more on this in a future post, I hope) - the perfect place to decompress after a stressful week - and then ate ahi poke and butterfish at the Turtle Bay resort, which is just at the point where the windward coast turns into the North Shore.  We watched the sun set from Sunset Beach, where I kicked back in the sand with my rotation of three books and D wandered in the surf.  And then we came back later that night to lie on the beach and watch the Perseid meteor shower.  The previous night we tried to watch from Waikiki beach, and saw a few "shooting stars," but the light pollution is much worse on the south side of the island, and you can only see the very brightest points in the sky.  I have to admit that I may have been unconscious for a good part of Friday evening - there is something about sleeping in sand amidst almost total darkness, with the surf rushing in the background and meteors tracing their way through the sky, that is very, very refreshing.

Yesterday we went on a snorkling expedition with some of the people D works with on the show, and actually managed to avoid terrible sunburns, although we also managed to avoid any trace of dolphins, which are less active in the afternoons.  Today is more relaxing - getting some long-missed blogging, cleaning up, perhaps going for a hike up Diamond Head later this afternoon, when it is cooler.


I finished Feeling Sorry for Celia this week, an Australian YA novel in epistolary (love it) form.  It features a teenaged heroine who is a long-distance runner, which I confess made me think of my marvelous friend RP, who is both a YA-reader (/librarian) and a marathoner, both of which, I think we can agree, are awesome accomplishments.

In the novel, Elizabeth Clarry has an eccentric best friend who keeps disappearing, an alienated father who is making awkward attempts to reacquaint himself with her, a mother who communicates largely through epic post-it notes (HEY! ELIZABETH!! OVER HERE! IN FRONT OF THIS HOUSE PLANT!! IT'S A NOTE FROM YOUR MOTHER!!!! WEAR EXTRA LAYERS TODAY! IT'S GOING TO BE COLD.), an anonymous admirer who shares her daily bus, a school-mandated pen-pal, and a half-marathon to train for. She is also the target of an endless slew of communications from organizations like "the Best Friends Club," "the Cold Hard Truth Association," and "the Young Romance Society," all of whom seem to think she is making a terrible, deflating mess of the life she has been given.  This was a fun read - once I became engrossed in it about a hundred pages in, I didn't put it down or sleep till I had finished it.  I appreciated how it presented teenaged sexuality - both having sex and never having been kissed are presented as legitimate, realistic, and problematic experiences for a fifteen-year-old, and they neither make you more or less cool, admirable, or sympathetic.  There were problems however, both with the epistolary format and with the relationship Elizabeth has with her best friend, that will keep this book out of my permanent library.  I'm hoping to have time for a longer review before I give it away via Bookmooch at the start of this week.

I am in the midst of two books now, Liz Berry's (paranormal?  I feel it is heading in that direction) YA romance The China Garden and Carrie Tiffany's Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living.  In Berry's book, which I have just begun, Clare accompanies her mother to a nursing job on a remote English country estate in the weeks before she heads off to university.  As soon as they arrive, it becomes clear that there is a lot that has been hidden from her, not the least of which is that her mother was born on the estate, and has long and tortured relationship with the people who never left. My friend CM, who always has great recommendations for thrilling YA, put me on to this one.

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living starts in the 1930s in Australia (what can I say? I'm on an Aussie kick.), where the Better-Farming Train is making its way through the arid farmlands of the country staging lectures and demonstrations on modern agricultural and domestic science.  Jean Finnegan has been hired as the needlework lecturer, and in her year of service she meets Robert Pettigree, a soil expert, who persuades her to embark on the experiment of a scientific marriage.  It is totally engrossing - my only wish so far (and I am halfway through the novel at this point) is that we had spent more time on the train, which contains a cast of characters so vibrant and is a space so interesting that it could have filled a much longer novel. (Also: it appears to be on extreme sale at Amazon right now.  It always irks me to see this after I have already bought a book.  Hrumph.)


Last night we swatched It Happened One Night, which I have been thinking about since last summer when we traveled through northern Maine, with its abundance of old-school housekeeping cottages.  Clark Gable (who is brilliant here, unsurprisingly) and Claudette Colbert finds their unmarried selves in a series of these cottages in the course of the movie, as they flee her worried millionaire father by Greyhound bus, and they deal with the impropriety by erecting the "walls of Jericho" (a blanket hung from a clothesline) down the middle of the room.  This is a surprisingly, delightfully saucy movie, featuring (I have to note) a slow, defiant striptease on Gable's part, but as a romance it has some troubling gender politics.

Besides this, we are totally enmeshed in a revolving array of TV shows that are available on Netflix's digital streaming (which announced this week that it is opening a Canadian service this Fall - hurrah!).  We are making our slow way through the new version of Doctor Who and its companion series Torchwood.  We jumped in to the newest series while we were in London this summer, bringing the greatest possible naivete to the episodes we saw there. ("Wait," D said, "So he travels in a phone booth that is bigger on the inside than on the outside?")  Since then we have gone back to watch all of the Christopher Eccleston episodes, and we are now well into David Tennant's brilliant tenure.  In last night's really sort of dreadful episode, from the third season, I finally learned why I get so many Google hits from people looking for information about the Sycorax.  It's because the Doctor went back to 1599 and casually mentioned his old nemeses - the mind-controlling Sycorax race of alien beings - to the Bard of Avon.  Apparently, good old Will Shagspere held onto that tidbit for many a year until he had need of an unnerving magical back story for The Tempest. It now occurs to me that I have seriously deepened the Google confusion with this post.  Ah well.  Hello, Tardis travelers! Welcome to Sycorax Pine, where we have no intention of controlling your minds via your type-A+ blood.  I promise. (But can you trust me?)

More importantly, we have become hopelessly enthralled to Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Rest assured that this is neither the Shyamalan-helmed movie (let us never speak of that again) nor an epic tale of the colonial oppression of blue, sensitive-tailed creatures.  You will not have to wear special 3D glasses.  Rather it is a visually inventive, richly characterized, well-written animated series with some of the most stunning martial arts sequences I have seen in many years.  It is a highly intelligent work, built out of deceptively simple premises (like many of the best works for children): the episode we just watched had scenes that were obviously influenced by Kurosawa's Yojimbo and its Western inheritors.

The world of Avatar is a war torn one: there used to be four nations that existed in perfect balance (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water), each with its own particular form of magic, which comes in the form of the ability to "bend," or manipulate, the nation's element.  The balance was always maintained by an "avatar," a warrior-lama who has mastery of all the different forms of bending.  But a century ago the new avatar, just a child, disappeared, and shortly after that - for reasons we don't completely understand yet - the Fire nation began a rampaging conquest of its neighbors' territories.  Now, after a hundred years of bloodshed, two Water nation children from the south pole find the young avatar (Aang) and his six-legged flying bison of a spirit-guide (Appa, who is a brilliantly drawn character in his own right) glacially preserved in unnatural youth.  The three children embark on a quest to train Aang, who is the last surviving member of the Air nation, in the bending of the three other elements so that he can turn the tide of war against the hyperaggressive Fire nation.

These three are really well-rendered - each given their own strengths,  weaknesses, areas of expertise, and feelings of responsibility that affect the adventures they have - but their plots tend toward the "very special episode" realm of lesson-learning.  Even better is the emerging story of the ruling family of Fire nation: the crown prince, Zuku, is my favorite character of the series (D tends to favor his uncle, an epicure of philosophical bent).  He has been attacked and banished by his father, and left with a vicious scar on his face from the violent confrontation.  He is a continual disappointment when compared to his gifted and heartless firebending sister, who tries (among other things) to convince him when they are still small children that their father plans to murder him.  His father has told him that the only way to restore his honor and earn a repeal of his banishment is to bring in the avatar as a prisoner, so he singlemindedly hunts Aang from one end of the world to the other.  We see him do callous, cruel things, but the more we learn of him, the more this seems a product of environment, of upbringing.  And the longer he wanders the world, the more his environment continues to work upon him, revealing how much he has in common with the heroic Aang.  His very pursuit of Aang often pits him against his own nation (which has sent other agents to destroy the Avatar), and the lines between capturing and rescuing begin to blur.

I don't even have time to get into the visual ingenuity of the film-making here, but if you can accustom yourself to some clanging moments of manga-style silliness you will also see some strikingly graceful images and movements drawn from (and built off of) that genre as well.

The fights (each nation has a fighting style based on a different discipline of Asian martial arts) are consistently my favorite part of each episode: in a recent episode that dealt with a blind girl who becomes the champion of Earth nation's WWE-style fighting league, her perception of the world around her is rendered so brilliantly that I exclaimed, "I have never seen anything like this."  Really: seek it out, and be patient through the simplicity of the early episodes.  It is one of my favorite discoveries of this year.

An Enthusiasm of Links

Jennifer Belle didn't want to market her book the same old way.  So  she took the Boalian, theatrical route and hired actors to read her book in public and laugh uproariously. (Do people ever do anything uproariously besides laughing?)
Many years ago, I read an article about professional funeral wailers in China. In China, and in many countries, when a loved one died, you hired people to sit in the back and cry—sob, weep, bellow, really, really grieve the way only a stranger or someone who is being paid can—or it just wasn’t considered a good funeral. And it didn’t mean you weren’t sad yourself, it was just for reinforcement. So for years I joked with my writer friends that one day, if I got desperate enough, I would hire people to read my book on the subway and laugh.

*     *     *

After reading the 138 novels on this year's Booker longlist, one of the judges has come to the conclusion that British writers are afraid to write about sex.
Philip Larkin pinpointed the emergence of sexual intercourse to 1963. Is his biographer, Motion, right in dating its demise, in literary terms, to the emergence of the Bad Sex Award in 1993?
I have noticed a fair amount of discussion among romance readers of how terribly non-genre writers treat sex scenes in their prose.  Admittedly, there is a fair amount of bad (or cliched or silly) sex in romance as well, but the best authors make poetry out of it, defamiliarizing all the old conventions of talking about both desire and the human body.  It strikes me that there is something about sexuality that serves as a foil to pretension, setting off language's literariness for both good and ill.  Thoughts?

*     *     *

"Writing a play," says Justin Tanner, " is like trying to fold a parachute so that it fits in an Altoids container."  

So, naturally, Matthew Freeman forges some similes of his own, by way of reply.

Some of my favorites:
  • "Writing a play bruises people with that one weird condition that makes you bruise easily."
  • "Writing a play is like discovering penmanship late in life."
  • "Writing a play impresses your Dad and lets him down at the same time."
  • "Writing a play is like texting with ghosts."
  • "Writing a play is, it turns out, entirely unlike sports."