Happy New Year’s and a Movie Review

•19/01/2011 • 1 Comment

I am not dead! This astonishes me, too. New Year’s Resolution: actually update this dratted thing. Once a week. Really. Also, switch up the colour scheme and maybe get a new banner. To celebrate rebooting Snake Stones, I’m going to review a fairy tale—Disney’s new princess movie, Tangled.

Yes, really.

Spoilers ahead. Ye be warned.

I went to see it this Christmas with my mother. In 3d, my first exposure. Wasn’t really worth the money, this new-oldfangled 3d technology, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I had to resist the urge to grab at things, which was fun.

I loved the movie. It, unlike Princess and the Frog, actually had some of that ole Disney magic, by which I mean, those little details that expanded the fairy tales and made them so much fun for me. In Beauty & the Beast, that would be the enchanted servants; Cinderella, those mice sewing the dress—fun things, unexpected, original even. In Tangled, what I particularly enjoyed was the treatment of her hair. She uses it Indiana Jones-like as a whip, as a pulley, she carries it around, she makes 70 feet of hair actually make sense somehow. I also enjoyed the way Rapunzel was a bit of a talented Renaissance (wo)man, with her painting and her cooking and her sewing and all.

The characterizations stood out, too. Rapunzel made the traditional Disney ingénue-naïveté work. This time, the princess has an excuse to be clueless. Her bipolar guilt/joy swings after getting off the tower were fabulously done. Flynn, too, was a charmer. I like it when Disney princes have character (Erik, Philip, whathisface from Snow White—is that Charming? I will never miss you.) I also enjoyed that he wanted to be Errol Flynn and pulled it off rather well. And Maximus was a nice inversion, the princely charger who is actually…a police-dog trapped in a horse’s body. (Has anyone else noticed that Disney horses always seem to act like dogs? Philippe can track where Belle’s father has gone in the snow; Pheobus’s horse sits). This is clearly not a canon explanation, but when I could just pretend Maximus was magically made into a horse I enjoyed him completely. He almost stole the show. Oh, and Pascal. Pascal was super adorable. And he didn’t speak, which was refreshing.

And I liked Rapunzel and Flynn’s relationship, to the point where I groaned when the plot kicked in and fast-forwarded their romance. I wanted to watch it develop. Of course, it must needs be a short kid’s film, but I thought there was enough potential for tension and amusement to not even need the added villainry.

Disney makes some cool villains, and I liked Mother Gothel. The way she used twisted logic on poor clueless Rapunzel—who has never had the chance to encounter another viewpoint—it’s wonderfully evil. It’s some of the worst evil a Disney villain’s gotten up to—psychological stuff can leave definite lasting harm. We don’t get to see that harm at the end, but I can well imagine their happily-ever-after is very much not the candy-coated sweetness that, say, Aurora and Philip will probably have, those two-dimensional lovebirds.

Of course, the film was formulaic and quite predictable and the music was largely forgettable. These are major drawbacks. But I still enjoyed Tangled and would totally watch it again. And again. It’s cheerful and Rapunzel has the same haircut I do at the end of the movie.

Conflict is Key

•12/09/2010 • Leave a Comment

Well, I had some notions for a post this weekend about how writing is about healing but I decided I didn’t feel like writing that topic yet so instead I’m going to say how much I love and hate conflict. But stay tuned.

So! I’ve just realized that every time I write myself into a corner, every time I become bored and my writing lethargic, the culprit is there’s not enough conflict. Or I’m just going on describing the architecture where my characters are walking when I really could just cut it—my readers will not need a play-by-play of the tiles my MC traipses over. I’m too disorganized to skip to scenes ahead, I could never write an ending first—at least, not where I am now, perhaps if I were writing a mystery—but I can skip the boring parts.

It’s a very refreshing thought. My new favourite writing mantra is, “If it bores you, it bores your readers.” But it does mean I need to stop and think a lot about all my character’s motives, because it’s so easy for me to want things to go smooth for my MCs, because I love them. It takes extra work to remember I’m supposed to screw up their lives. But when I do remember, a cackle of delight shivers over my hands, and I’m back writing again.

New House

•05/09/2010 • 3 Comments

Oh right. I have a blog. Hrm.

We moved this past week, and man, was it ever a lot of work! I never want to move again, except, of course, I will want to at some point. I haven’t had the time or the energy to spend doing anything other than moving, and complaining about moving, and generally grousing around.

This house, though, is lovely. There’s five of us living together; two couples and me. Which may or may not be awkward—I’m hoping for the latter. Four of us have lived together before, and we’re the stable remnants of what was previously a house with a higher turnover rate than your neighborhood Timmy’s. And whereas before we lived in a dump that basically WAS the student ghetto (affectionately and arguably dubbed ‘the Metahouse’), now we live in a fantasy—the previously described Tudor house.

I have the master bedroom, which is spacious and quite comfortable thanks to the loan of a cushy upholstered chair. The toilets are rather horizontal and strange (my boyfriend complains that they were clearly built for women, whatever that means), but I’ve adapted. The house is seriously beautiful. The previous tenants left a whole whack of junk, inexplicably including dirty laundry, condoms, and most frightening of all, an unopened Edward Cullen calendar. *shudder* On the plus side, they left about five 500 ml bottles of verbena hand soap (what?), so we’ll probably never run out.

The house was built in 1967 for Canada’s centennial by an old man and, if I was told right, his little black dog. It’s a little…odd in some ways. Like the door handles being backwards and small, and it’s clearly got a unique layout. It does not feel like a cardboard cutout house. It feels its age, but nicely so. It’s kept up.

The dishwasher (and easily accessible laundry) is my favourite feature. While the Metahouse was infamous for its towering, horrifying stacks of dirty and/or moldy dishes, everything is cleaned regularly and nonfrighteningly here. We fill up the dishwasher all day and then run it, and then the dishes are clean. It’s incredible. I have a notion that I used to live like that at home with my parents, but after two years in the Metahouse, it feels like wondrous magic. I know of other student houses who claim they never use their dishwasher, and I just can’t imagine how not. My only conclusion is they must not eat very well—which, knowing student living, is possibly quite accurate.

The only sad thing about the move is that there are no longer cats, because pets aren’t allowed (not even fish). There is an adorable gimp cat that comes around our yard every day, so maybe the neighbourhood cats will fill up the hole. Also, this neighbourhood is full of beautiful, beautiful dogs (huskies and German shepherds and lush retrievers), so maybe I’ll even get to pet a few…

Morning Pages

•22/08/2010 • Leave a Comment

So these morning pages things, they seem to be doin’ alright for me.

Three pages a morning, stream-of-consciousness, which I amended to three smaller notebook pages rather than looseleaf—my wrist would prefer it if I didn’t write too long, straight. Typing is less painful, I think because I naturally tighten my grip on my pen or pencil. (Aside: I’m trying to find different ways of pen- and pencil grip, but I’ve been writing this way for so long that it’s hard). For those not in the know, I have a repetitive stress injury on my right wrist. The joke is I got it playing Morrowind, though it was more a combination of things.

Rambling aside, these morning pages. I won’t say what I write, but the general drift is that I end up bitching, whining, moaning and angsting. Which apparently means that I’m doing it right. The idea is to siphon off negativity early in the morning, leaving one more even-headed, more balanced or optimistic or what-have-you later in the day. And honestly, they seem to be working.

I do feel more stable. The changes are small, but I’m noticing them. My moods are less flip-floppy (not that it’s immediately obvious to others), and I feel like doing more art. Which is always a good thing. Although the art in question seems to be watercolour more than writing. Well, who knows. Maybe on some level they inform each other.

The Beast and Me

•15/08/2010 • Leave a Comment

How many retellings of Beauty and the Beast does this culture need? And why has this story come, lately, out of nowhere to smack me as messily as a fish’s tail in the face?

Not entirely nowhere. As you may or may not know, I am moving soon, to a quaint Tudor-style house with diamond pane windows and ex-prizewinning roses and a little greenhouse out back. My thoughts have been exceptionally domestic as of late. And as I am wont to do, annually, I ended up going into a tiny Robin McKinley fit.

I love Robin McKinley now more than I did when I was younger, and her target audience. As a child, I found her prose dense and hard going, and I think this is because she breaks half the rules in the book: she uses a profusion of -ing verbs, and passive voice, and -ly adverbs, and long twisting over-archaic sentences with patterns that might be showing up in my writing right now. Somehow, she makes it work. I find it a little distracting, because I’m being trained to keep a weather-eye out for these things.

Anyway, I was at the UVic library a few days ago, and they have a marvellous children’s section, and because I felt domestic and because of the prizewinning roses that I am looking forward to tend (my roommate’s work is supplying her with as much horse manure as we want!), I picked Rose Daughter to read. Rose Daughter is McKinley’s second Beauty and the Beast book—I think her first was actually the inspiration for the Disney movie. Rose Daughter is the most unusual retelling I’ve read (barring the gay leather version in an anthology a few years back), and overuses the word ‘rose’ so much that I went from acceptance to annoyance to sheer joy at the profusion. Anyway, Beauty’s family goes from rich to poor, and then the first third of the book is their adapting to the rural, somewhat enchanted, Rose Cottage.

Somewhere near the end of the reread (and I’ve read most of McKinley’s work many times), the muse/rabid plot bunny gave me a good solid piercing bite, and then I hammered out about 2,500 words in the past few days in yet another retelling of a poor overtold fairy story. (At least it isn’t Cinderella.)

Of course, I’m not sure if the basic shape of fairy tales can be overtold. They strike too many heartstrings. And I’m pretty certain I’ve never read a retelling from the Beast’s point of view.

Incidentally, if you’ve never read McKinley’s versions, go read them. While you’re at it, check out her Damar books, and Sunshine, and oh, everything else. I’m just finishing my reread of Spindle’s End.

Progress I Hope

•07/08/2010 • 1 Comment

The past two weeks I chewed up two books on writing, one focussed on scenes, The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield, and another whose title I cannot recall which was on self-editing, which is back at the library now, hence the forgetfulness. I was surprised at how helpful they were, not just in terms of revision, but in making the whole task of writing—even the first draft—seem less daunting.

The self-editing book was basically my second-year fiction workshop, condensed and generalized. Some of the mistakes or stylistic improvements they mentioned I’ve already addressed in my writing. Some didn’t apply. Some I’d heard directed towards other’s work. Either way, the book built very sensibly from ‘show, don’t tell,’ while stating clearly that it is not a hard and fast rule, in terminology I appreciated. So if you ever stumble across the book (it’s in the writing section at Victoria’s Nellie McClung branch; it also has terrible cartoons) it’s worth a look.

This book especially made me want to write as well as revise because the things it mentions are things you can actually do as you progress in your first draft. Strive for the image, work on cutting out too many -ing verbs, stop thinking in passive voice, etc.

The scene book was more practical as far as first drafts are concerned. I’ll point out now that I’m working on finally getting a goddamn proper rough draft of that seven-year novel idea down, for real. Because I know it’s starting structure. I just don’t know how it ends, and I need to bull through it. And a book talking about how to format scenes is especially useful to me, as I have a tendency to overwrite and fall into tedium. Not everything must needs be detailed. When my characters are doing mundane things with low tension, I bore myself out of the work. Which I do often.

The library also yielded up a tome yesterday that I did not expect. It’s a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, who teaches art as a spiritual practice, which primarily deals with getting past creative and artistic blocks. It looks holistic, agreeable, is not religious, and is full of practical advice. It’s a bit of a workbook, so I’m going to work through it. One of its basic practices is freeform writing, three pages a morning. To get the blah out. To get past Inner Editor voice, or the Censor as she calls it. Sounds alright. So we’ll see how this works out. It’ll take time, but I’ll report on my creative progress as I go.

Touch & Taste

•31/07/2010 • Leave a Comment

I had my wisdom teeth taken out three weeks ago and it was unpleasant. It’s still healing, the one infected socket, now de-cloved and treated with antibiotics (joy!). This put me in the awkward position of eating unsolid foods—quite a blow to me, as I am an avowed soup-hater (except for Mom’s goose fat soup, and that miso soup at that awesome sushi place in Vancouver, and maybe wonton soup provided there isn’t much of it) and particularly enjoy chewing. It is something I love. Solid foods, the textures and the way they feel in my mouth, the perfect satisfaction of one good crunch—ah!

I was chatting with the pharmacist at the on-campus pharmacy when I went to pick up my antibiotics, and I mentioned the unpleasantness, and how the mouth is a very intimate area—and then I started thinking about it. I mean, I hear ‘intimate area,’ the first thing I think of is…well, sex. The mouth is put to good sexual use. But that wasn’t what I meant at all.

I’ve come to realize that sometimes I think with my tongue and lips. I’m probably not alone in this. My tongue is eager to investigate every new nuance of feeling in my mouth. It can’t resist wounds, or packed food, or my healing sockets. But its interest is hardly limited to the confines of the mouth.

Sometimes to really know a thing, it has to be lip-brushed or tongue-tested. Sometimes a texture is too much to resist. Unable to truly experience the soft curls on my dog Zorro’s head, I’d just have to lick that too-soft fur. My roommates will attest to the fact that I used to nom lightly on Mango’s ears as I held him in the kitchen. (Mango, ever-patient, didn’t mind apart from a brief buhwha?oh moment.)

It’s a very close and personal way of experiencing the world. Mouth pain can be the most distracting kind of pain because it is such a primal, necessary area. It’s an excellent sense, I think, to explore in writing, because it’s visceral and so there that it can easily be ignored unless we’re talking kissing or eating scenes. Exploring mouth pain and pleasure beyond the obvious might be an interesting writing exercise.

Book Review: Tamsin

•24/07/2010 • Leave a Comment

I mentioned a few weeks ago how I struck I was by Peter S. Beagle’s use of detail in his book Tamsin, only 30 pages in. Now that I’ve finished the book (well, last week, but I’ve recently had four wisdom teeth and an additional two back lower molars extracted, so I haven’t really felt like doing anything, much less blog-writing. If you’re interested, they’ve mostly healed up, except for the back lower right socket, which is currently stuffed with something medicated, which tastes overwhelmingly of oil of cloves) I feel the need to gush further about just how great this book was.

It was crammed full of details, believable, beautiful, lush, juicy details. The characterizations were fantastic, quirky enough, and so honestly, achingly* human. But I think that’s Beagle’s trademark, the achingly human. Although, the animals in his novels are often achingly themselves, and that holds true of TLU’s unicorn, the raven from A Fine and Private Place, and Tamsin’s Mister Cat, who reminded me so much at one point of my lost Mango (despite having a rather different personality), that I was sad and weepy for a morning.

I think that is Beagle’s greatest strength: his writing is so familiar to the interior world. The touchstones in his fantastic worlds are personalities, and quirks, and feelings. Like good literature should, I suppose, though it feels snooty to say so.

Tamsin is a ghost, and becomes close friends with our young narrator. Jennifer, 19 in the nebulous present, is writing down these events that occurred when she was 15. This is the supernatural set-up. But there’s a wealth of ‘real’ details that make this fabulous reading, the move from New York to a shabby farm in Dorset, England, all the inter-family politics as Jenny’s mother remarries her English farmer, Jenny’s own misery and grumpiness and being uprooted, the absolute horror of having her beloved Mister Cat put in a six-month quarantine. There is a a gentle grittiness to all the details, which doesn’t back off when other supernatural elements are introduced, a pooka, a boggart, the wild hunt. Jenny’s Indian best friend sharing stories of the ghosts in India. A distant romantic tragedy in the farm’s past that is unique enough to move you even though you’ve read a hundred distant romantic tragedies before.

My only complaint is that sometimes it feels too rushed, too many years packed into 400 pages. Which, considering the somewhat domestic nature, isn’t much of a complaint—I wanted to spend more time with the characters. Sometimes I dislike the way plot and bigger conflicts get in the way of finding out who the characters are ‘behind the scenes’ if you will. But maybe that would make for a slogging read.

As it was, Tamsin was a great read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone jaded with haunted houses and ghost stories, who may want to see what something different tastes like.

*achingly, apparently, isn’t a word, which I think is ridiculous. It has a decent word-feel to it.

Peter S. Beagle, because

•02/07/2010 • Leave a Comment

My personal goal of updating Wednesdays is not having a good track record so far. I wonder if I’ve limited myself too much with the narrow subject matter. I don’t often know what to write. Well, I’ve been reading and re-reading Peter S. Beagle a lot this summer. I’ve gone on a Beagle binge, so to speak. So I will write about my relationship with Beagle’s writing.

Beagle was one of my favourite authors before I’d read any of his books or knew his name. You see, (horribly embarrassing confession time!), as a young girl, I was obsessed with unicorns. Honestly, I still am.. I’m just more defensive about it. (They have frickin’ weapons on their heads. Seriously.) And Peter S. Beagle is the genius behind The Last Unicorn, which remains one of my favourite movies.

The book is obviously better. I’m somewhat glad I never read it until I was a teenager, because when I was younger, I found Beagle hard to get into. His prose is poetic, lyric. It’s chewy. There’s a lot there. As a child, I never would have understood the gentle humour, the soft way Beagle makes fun of his story and characters while remaining serious and true to them. I would have missed half the references. I think the movie is perfect for children, summing up the more adventurous parts, while the book is for adults, with its references and its philosophy.

Beagle, of course, is not just The Last Unicorn. Hardly. He wrote many books and short stories. And I read somewhere that he considers The Innkeeper’s Song to be his favourite of his works. I find this interesting because while there are many things I love about The Innkeeper’s Song (namely the poem), I wouldn’t rate it at the top of my favourite Beagle works list. It is a beautiful book. I just don’t think it approaches The Last Unicorn in that strange misty magic, or A Fine and Private Place for its perfect simple humanity (that covers the raven and the ghosts). The construction of The Innkeeper’s Song reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—not at all in content or style, but in that almost sloppy artistic way, where the story rambles here and there and while it makes several points or touches several themes, it doesn’t feel wholly unified. A piecemeal story, where the creator is stumbling over pieces of the world as it is being written. I’m finding the stories in Giant Bones, a book of short stories set in the same world, much more polished, and, honestly, more riveting.

At the moment, I’m reading Tamsin. 30 pages in, and I’m hooked like there’s no tomorrow. (Why aren’t I reading it right now? I’m being attacked by a swarm of biting writerbugs.) In 30 pages, the protagonist is stuck moving to England with her mother. That’s all. And yet it’s not. It is the perfect example of show, don’t tell. It’s the perfect example of just why details are so important to a story. Because they’re quirky. They’re interesting. The protagonist describes her world so vividly that you can’t help but be interested, despite the fact that technically nothing’s happened yet. The image that stands out the most for me is the protagonist walking into the kitchen to see her mother chewing on a carrot. That’s the reason I’m falling madly in love with this book, 30 out of 335 small-print pages in. A mother eating a carrot. The author who can do that must surely be the best magician in the world.

So, Peter S. Beagle. His writing, as I’ve said, is lyric and poetic. It jumps off the page with quirks and curiosities. And yet it is often softly delivered. He can make you believe anything. Sometimes, when I read Beagle, I feel there’s a voice whispering or softly singing the stories into my ear. Intimate, quiet, but powerful. I don’t often Beagle the easiest writer to read, because his stories demand attention. But they are so very rewarding.

Book Review: For All the Tea in China

•23/06/2010 • Leave a Comment

Is this blog more about tea or is it about literature? I’m not sure I care to quantify, but this book brings together the best of both worlds. Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China is an engrossing account of how the swashbuckling botanist Scotsman Robert Fortune sneaked into China and stole tea plants, tea workers and the knowledge of how to prepare tea, for the British Empire. The book jacket claims it as “one of the greatest corporate thefts of all time.” And Fortune’s exploits are exceedingly badass: near the beginning, Rose recounts how Fortune, while ill, managed to send two Chinese pirate junks fleeing—with only a pistol and bravado! Fortune never lacks for courage in his adventure, and the resulting story is riveting and sometimes incredulous. Fortune manages his smuggling act while travelling deep into China disguised as a mandarin. Hijinks ensue.

But Rose explains the political and economical environment clearly and when it’s needed, so the reader can clearly see why tea was so important, and what the impact of botanists at the time was.

For the most part I found the book quite readable. It’s short, only around 250 pages, and moves along at a good pace. Nothing about it is dense or off-putting. Rose writes from a British-centric point of view, but she doesn’t hesitate to point out that Fortune was often quite paternalistic to the Chinese he interacted with, explaining the cultural difficulties that led to tensions between Fortune and his Chinese assistants.

This is not the most heavy or philosophical of works. Its simplistic overview of the political events probably leaves much relevant information out. Its delivery is, however, choppy. I understood the logic behind the section’s organization and it proceeded in a roughly linear fashion. I can’t vouch for the historical facts, I’m not a student of history as such, and at any rate I don’t know much about Victorian colonialism, except what I’ve picked up piecemeal, so I found myself somewhat confused by the timeline. I wasn’t sure when Fortune’s activities were in relation to the First Opium War. Fortune makes two separate trips, to collect ‘green tea plants’ and ‘black tea plants,’ even though they are the same and Fortune believes they are the same. We’re never told why Fortune goes on two trips even though he knows the plant is the same, good old Camellia sinensis. What is his rationale? Why does the book progress as if it’s still hiding the fact that the tea plants are the same, waiting for the big reveal? The book’s treatment is shallow and sensationalist. Don’t mistake this for anything other than light reading. There are also at least three occasions where Rose writes ‘surfeit’ when she means ‘surplus.’ These were my biggest beefs with the story. That and I’m not sure if some sort of moral discussion should be given to the fact that… well, it was a theft. Fortune is celebrated as a hero (albeit with flaws), but was that…right?

Still, all in all, For All the Tea in China is a good way to spend an afternoon or two. A little gem for anyone looking for light reading. Just be prepared to find yourself wanting to know more details—which might not be a bad aftereffect!