Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Traveling to the Twelve Kingdoms

I am in awe of the world building in The Twelve Kingdoms series. Not only does it have ridiculously off the wall ideas, but it pursues them to logical extremes and often leaves me wondering, "Would that actually work in the real world?"

In this world, babies grow on trees. Yeah, you read that right. Sounds silly and whimsical, right? Well, it's actually pretty intriguing. A married couple goes to pray on a specific day and wraps their prayer on a branch of the tree. If the heavens deem them capable of being good parents, a child grows for a year on that branch, and then, when it's ripe, they whack it with a rock to crack the eggfruit shell, and the baby is born. Because it's so hard to get a child, children are quite highly valued.

Think of the sociological implications! Women don't spend months increasingly incapacitated; they don't breastfeed. Either parent can serve as primary caretaker, but mostly the responsibility is shared. Both parents can work on the farm or serve in the government. Wild, right?

And then there's the way that the society is set up. Until age 20, children are taken care of and taught how to take care of themselves. At age 20, they receive a standard land grant in the town where they're registered. They can sell it and take the money to open up a shop in a town. They can trade it if they marry someone from another place. The plots of land are laid out in a standard way so that there are 8 plots and 1 communal plot in each grouping. Unless the kingdom is in turmoil, no one who works has to risk starvation. And if you can't work or are under 20 or over 60, you live in the communal house and are taken care of. In a small country with mainly agricultural land going for it, this could really work! Just like every other system, it works better in theory-world where no actual humans are involved, but still.

Anyway, I wrote a bit elsewhere about it, and I do highly recommend picking up the series not if you're interested because the publisher just went under, so the books are now technically out of print.  Good luck finding the first one for anything approaching a reasonable price.  The fourth one ends in a good place. When I finished it, I got a bit teary-eyed because I might never read a new volume again, but I'm really grateful for the four we did get.  I hope someone rescues this license and reissues the books (and maybe does a better job marketing them to the wider audience they richly deserve).

Have you read this series? Your thoughts?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

In defense of a sub-genre lots of people hate

So I was reading this article in defense of Christian romance novels today, and it got me thinking about the usual fiction and faith-related topics.  I would love to hear your thoughts.  Below are some highlights to entice you to read the whole thing (and at least skim the comments). 
  1. '"It’s nice to enter a world where broken people get their pieces put back together."'
  2. '"I think she’s dead-on. Any of us who enjoy reading fiction — of any stripe — do so in part for the entertaining escape. Whether it's romance or mystery, literary novels or action-packed adventures, we love reading because we love getting lost into other people’s lives, worlds, interests, and desires. We can enjoy all the good of their world or cringe at the hardship, all the while understanding that it is made up."'
  3. "Christian romance novels may indeed hold some danger for some. If your relationships suffer because of them, of course don’t read them. And if — as is often the case with those who view porn — you read romance novels to fulfill your own unmet longings and needs, be warned: you won’t.
  4. 'But unlike porn, which offers empty depravity, Christian romance stories offer something beautiful and hopeful and God-honoring: stories of people overcoming hurts and heartache and finding love.'
  5. 'In fact, this is why Pleiter says she writes Christian romance. “I welcome the chance,” she says, “to pull readers out of their daily lives for a few hours and show them a lovely world where people forgive one another and where love conquers all.”'
  6. 'Pushing back on Moore’s comment, Pleiter says this isn’t about creating an illusion but holding up an ideal.'
  7. 'While we may not agree on all the “ideals” romance novels convey, Pleiter raises a good point. It is the ideal of being forgiven and love conquering all that appealed to me. And while my brain knows this isn’t always true, my heart wishes it were. The good news is that my soul knows it will. Not in a book. Not in this life. But one day.'
  8. 'So, far from wrecking marriages, the occasional Christian romance should strengthen our hope."'
  9. '"My point? All fictional genres are based on unreality and unreal presentations of the world, whether it be romance, military suspense, mystery, or science fiction. There is always a danger of being sucked into unreality and making unreasonable expections of life, whether that be in terms of a spouse, a job, or any other life experience. I fully understand that certain situations may be a danger to the reader/viewer. I myself have certain reading/viewing standards. To ban an entire genre, though, and one which a number of godly women use as a means of coping with the demands of a life devoted to God, church, and family, seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. No doubt there are people who have been harmed by fiction. To claim it is all bad, though, requires more than sweeping generalization and anecdote. For the Christian, I'd say there needs to be Scriptural evidence and consistency, for the verse "Guard your heart" is a phrase that can refer to a number of idols we put up in our hearts, including "godly" activities like serving the Church or even reading the Bible (as I recall, there are a number of hunks and scandals in there, too)."'
  10. '"I can see many who have a problem with these are many who have a problem with fiction in general. We lack metaphorical intelligence for poetic truth."'
Feel free to comment on one or all (they're numbered for your convenience).  What is your experience with these books?  If you have none, why not?  I'd really like to hear people's thoughts about this controversial subgenre. 

Also, I think the article's author earns class points for not using the term "Bonnet Ripper," but I'm not sure if those points are positive or negative.

Monday, June 20, 2011

One Daddy-Long-Legs I don't want to squash

I read Daddy-Long-Legs today, a light and cheerful little book published in 1912 about an orphan who's given the chance to go to college if she'll just write letters to her anonymous benefactor once a month.  Don't be put off by the potential creepiness of the title; she caught a glimpse of him during the opening chapter during a flash of lightning that made his shadow look like the long-legged spider.  It was pleasant and sassy and such a delightful ride that I don't really care that it ended predictably (and that I suspected where it was going to end from pretty much the third chapter).  Some books are like that. 

It actually reminded me a bit of the feeling I got while reading the Betsy-Tacy series.  Time long past that is "simpler" and slightly unfamiliar and thus interesting from a historical standpoint but full of many familiar feelings and types of experiences.  There's the same leisurely pacing some of the earlier Betsy-Tacy books had, too.

Also, though it could have had elements of creepiness once I figured out what was going on, it widely avoided any Tale of Genji shenanigans.

I'm also a sucker for a well-done story in letters.  Letters are such interesting things, really, and I'm sad we don't really do them anymore.  There was a factor of time delay and removal from actual interaction that allowed letter writers to be more honest if they wanted to be but also more artificial and deceptive if they so chose.  Any form where it's easier both to lie and to tell the truth has such possibilities, don't you think?  And there's just more room for emotion when handwriting (not typing) is involved.

In this book, there was the added frustration of the letter writer sending her letters off into a void where she didn't get answers.  For all she knew, here benefactor didn't even read her letters.  Maybe she was writing them for no one, and sometimes, this provoked reactions in her that she later regretted but couldn't immediately fix.  There's something about writing to someone you don't really know that is kind of freeing. 

There's a similar feeling to some kinds of blogging.  You don't really know if anyone's reading it, but sometimes, the pleasure in writing is all you really want.  When you get a response, it's a bonus, but the effort and practice in writing is valuable in and of itself.

Now I'll have to track down the sequel, enticingly entitled Dear Enemy.  I wonder if the same friend who leant me this book has that one, as well.  She just handed it to me one day saying she thought I'd appreciate it despite the traditional ending.  I was sort of flabbergasted because in the month before she gave it to me, I had run across references to it in three or four different and unexpected places (it seems this work is still quite popular in Japan, for instance).

Have you read this work or encountered it anywhere?  What are your thoughts on it? 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Will beauty save the world?

From an advertisement for the book:
"Beauty Will Save the WorldImage editor Gregory Wolfe has said more than once that public intellectuals are a dying breed: writers who proceed on the assumption that regular people read novels old and new, go to museums and art exhibitions, and may even dip into theology and aesthetics. The public intellectual writes as if these interests are not the exclusive territory of academics and specialized reviewers, but are the marks of a well-rounded, curious human being, be she project manager, chemistry teacher, cop, or stay-at-home mom. A dying breed, perhaps, but not quite extinct. In Wolfe and a few others like him, the species lives on. His new book’s title, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, taken from an enigmatic journal entry of Dostoyevsky, summarizes Wolfe’s own way of thinking: beauty is no frill, but a foundation of a full human life. A cheerful, erudite generalist, Wolfe has the rare gift of tackling weighty and complex ideas in engaging, readable prose. What gives particular warmth to this collection is that he is also occasionally personal. The book would never be mistaken for a memoir, but the outline of Wolfe’s own story is there. Its arc is the discovery that the arts have value to a culture, and to individuals, that goes beyond uplift, diversion, and entertainment, and in fact can shape how we think and live more deeply than abstraction and ideology. We participate in a discovery that is also Wolfe’s own, as he grows from an avidly political youth to a sadder, wiser, more catholic reader of poetry and novels, viewer of art and film, and listener of music, who still cares just as passionately about the state of human societies, though now from a different angle. The book’s earlier sections describe the role of art in the contemporary age—a fractured, shifting time, to be sure, but no more so than any other, Wolfe argues—and make the case for beauty as a vital underpinning to the life of the soul and a humanizing, vivifying, mellowing, and enriching force. Throughout, Wolfe is generous with examples. His special joy is in holding up particular gems for our appreciation, including the work of artists and writers both canonical and lesser-known. Later chapters give consideration to novelists dear to his heart (Endo, Berry, Waugh, Woiwode), visual artists (Folsom, McCleary, Fujimura), and the conservative mentors who shaped him as a young man. Wolfe’s engagement with culture is broad and welcoming. Novels, poems, painting, philosophy, aesthetics: the feast is open to everyone. With stunning cover art by painter Laura Lasworth."

Sounds interesting to me.  What about you?

Censorship and other uncontroversial topics

I stumbled across this a while ago, and I thought I'd share in case you find it valuable.  Please check out the initial post (salty language warning), the situation it surrounds, and the comments (including this one).  I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially if you are raising children or have raised them or were one yourself.  :)

"When it comes to 'controversial' subjects in relation to teens, I truly believe censorship is not just harmful to students, it's downright selfish. Why is it selfish? Because it's more for the sake of the adults than for the sake of the children. Censorship allows parents to feel good about their kids not being exposed to controversial subject matter. Censorship allows the school to feel safe from having to be associated with controversial subject matter. Censorship doesn't keep the children safe from the subject matter, especially not subject matter relating to them and their peers. So what if they don't see it in a film or on a stage? They see it in their homes, in their hallways, in the news, in their friends.. . . Parents and teachers talk and talk about all these "dark, untasteful" subjects till the students' ears fall off, but the moment kids want to talk back, want to answer, ask questions, a lot of adults become afraid.

"Maybe they're scared that they won't have an answer to what the youth will ask them, maybe they're afraid of what they'll discuss among themselves. This is normal, and this is ok. What isn't ok is to pass on your fears to youth without also passing down the knowledge that comes with it. What isn't fair is to ask youth to keep their eyes closed to the reality of their world simply because you'd rather not face it yourself.

"I can imagine its scary to see children that you were taught to protect starting to try to figure out their own way of dealing with things, but that's what they need, that's growing up.. . ."

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Life Is Not a Musical

I saw Billy Elliot the Musical the other day, and all the trees look like dancers.  I love that about ballet.

I loved the movie Billy Elliot.  I wanted to see the musical version of it the last time I was in England, but I was roped to a high maintenance, mentally unstable, young roommate for the duration of our tour there, so I had to see what she wanted, which was not Billy Elliot.  I wish I weren't so nice.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised when it came to my area.  But then I faced a dilemma, which is the fact that I loathe musicals.

I wasn't always like this.  I actually acted in a lot of musicals up through high school.  I still regularly have lyrics and music I sang nearly 20 years ago get stuck in my head.  So why can I hardly stand to watch musicals?  I guess it's because they make things feel so trivial.  On a positive note, musicals are about words and movement, and there were moments with a lot of angry words and violence and dancing in the movie.

Billy Elliot was so dark and nuanced and political that I was pretty sure turning it into a musical would destroy it because of the nature of the genre-beast.  Musicals like to take the most powerful/poignant/emotional moments and dwell on them.  To death.  In a movie like Billy Elliot, the strength lay in the lack of over-dramatizing, in the careful restraint from any descent into sentimentality, in those quick moments of awesome beauty in an otherwise, cold, angry, brutal, awkward, real, grounded and gritty world.  Another strength was the reserve and inarticulateness of the characters.  These are not things that scream "great musical" to me.

It's a good thing there was some outstanding acting going on.  Stealing the show was a grandmother who I don't think was actually even in the original.  She was amazing.  The woman who becomes Billy's teacher was pretty great, too.  The music was very good, and some of the dancing was well done.  The fusion of a lot of different styles really worked in the numbers that weren't too exaggerated in typical musical style.  Billy's actor that day was pretty good, too.  His dancing-acting was incredible; his acting-acting was not quite as good, but he was trying to speak in an unfamiliar accent in a language that was not his first, so, you know, I'm going to cut him some slack.  That's a tough role to play for anyone, and he mostly pulled it off, even the copious swear words.  (Yeah, it wouldn't be what it was if they didn't leave those in there. :)

I enjoyed it, and I cried at the end because it turned out to be the last performance, and that always choked me up in my theater days. 

Have you seen any good musicals or plays lately?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Rebel Jesus

I've been reading the gospels lately, and, you know what?  They tell a good story about a really compelling man (who was also God). 

Every time I read them, I am always shocked by how unsanitized He is in these books.  He is not a pious, clean, respectable man.  He is controversial; He does not pull punches.  He argues, He is sly and clever, He deliberately speaks in parables so people won't understand, He feeds the hungry, He is unpredictable, He seeks solitude and encourages His followers to do the same, He heals the sick even on the Sabbath.  He has no patience with those who aren't really seeking.  He is not nice.  He's loving and kind but not nice. 

I love Him with all my heart because He is so real. 

Blue Like Jazz movie trailer

I like Donald Miller's work.  I like Steve Taylor's work.  I have to tell you I'm actually kind of looking forward to the movie adaptation of the essay collection Blue Like Jazz because not only is it written by Miller, but the movie is also directed by Steve Taylor.  I hope it's good.

Anyway, this must all be kind of surreal for Donald Miller.  I mean, some guys approached him about making a movie based on his nonfiction book, and he ended up writing a book as a result of his odd experiences watching these professional movie guys try to shape his life story into something that made film story sense even if it wasn't literally true.  That movie ended up not happening due to lack of funds.  Then fans of the book basically funded this extremely low-budget movie version.

If it shows up in a theater near near me, I'll see it and let you know what I think.  I'd appreciate if you'd do the same.  :)