Books read in May 2013

FOR THE RECORD, I’m also halfway through a post about Star Trek and Khan Noonien Singh and stuff, but also I’m involved in this convention that’s a week from now, so, yeah, I’ve got stuff happening.

But not so much stuff that I couldn’t read SEVEN WHOLE BOOKS, YEAH!

Okay, so last month I read seven books and I was like, “I fail so hard!”  This month I’m practically high-fiving myself, which, also, I don’t recommend because it’s awkward and you look weird.

My excuse is that this month’s books were more substantial than April’s, in that there were no graphic novels or YA re-readds.  YEAH.

Red Dragon Thomas Harris Thriller
The Revolution Was Televised Alan Sepinwall Television
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress Rhoda Janzen Memoir
Triangle: The fire that changed America David von Drehle History
Thunderstruck Erik Larson History
Pox: An American History Michael Willrich History
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder Charles Graeber True crime

ALSO, all but one of those books was non-fiction.  Not that NF is superior or anything, but it engages a different part of the brain.

The one novel I read:

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, because Hannibal (the TV series, not the terrible book) fandom is hilarious, and also it looks like a really good show.  And I read Silence of the Lambs at an impressionable age (14), then held my breath until Hannibal came out.  Whereupon I turned my exhalation into a tantrum, because that was character-destroying shite and I have never forgiven Thomas Harris for what he did to Clarice.

(One of the few conversations I had with my high school crush — conversations that didn’t come to a premature end because I was hyperventilating, I mean — was about how much we hated Hannibal.)

I quite enjoyed Red Dragon, despite the complete lack of Clarice Starling (which is why I didn’t read it as a teen, because WHAT IS THE POINT?).  Will Graham is a character-type so common now as to be generic, but I could see where Thomas was reaching for something new.  Lecter himself seemed less layered and more cartoonish than he would later become, but it might be that I have rose-coloured memories of reading Silence for the first time.

What didn’t really work for me was the villain, who didn’t seem to fit any realistic psychiatric profiles (‘cos I’m an expert, you know) and wound up kind of a stereotype of the schizophrenic murderer.  Also, he eats a painting.  Well, a watercolour.  OH WAIT, YOU REALLY CAN’T MAKE THAT ANY LESS WEIRD.  And by weird, I mean that was the moment when literature jumped the shark.

The book about TV

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall.  A TV critic looks at the way television has evolved in the 21st century, specifically in the development of elaborate, narratively ambitious cable series.

This was pretty interesting, but what I took away from it in the end was that, coming from a critic’s perspective, Sepinwall missed both the academic and fan angles.  And that’s unfortunate, because it led to slight inaccuracies that are nonetheless grating if you’re a TV nerd.  For example, he claims that the very first TV show to be discussed on the internet was The X Files, which was more like the first show where discussion exploded and became quite mainstream.  (The first was probably Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve read that the cliffhanger that ended “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1 was what made TV bulletin boards explode.)  And The X Files (again) was one of the earliest and most successful shows to use ongoing mythology and an arc, but Babylon 5 debuted first, and I’d argue that even Twin Peaks paved some ground.

But that’s just little things.  If you want an overview of quite a few prestige TV series, and the network shows that preceded them, this is a good, light read.  And you get bonuses, like Ron Moore being quoted as saying Star Trek fans don’t watch The West Wing and vice versa.

The religious upbringing memoir

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  In which the author, after her marriage ends and she suffers a serious car accident, goes home to her parents, members of the conservative Mennonite community.

It probably says something about my upbringing that I was really struck by the lack of abuse in this book.  Actually, no, that’s not true — Janzen’s account of her time with her family also unfolds, slowly, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband — but the only terrible things her conservative! religious! family did to her involved making her wear nerdy clothes, and sending her out into the world with no sense of self-preservation against predators.  

I was slightly disappointed that Janzen’s family aren’t the conservative Mennonites of the kind I saw in Canada.  Her parents had that lifestyle growing up, but were liberal enough to own a car and a modern house.  And her mother had a nursing career.  (By the time Jenzen returns, they’re so liberal her mother asks why she’s not showing off her legs in attractive shorts at a Mennonite gathering.)  But if you’re coming into this book hoping for a look at the lifestyle of the very conservative and technology-rejecting, you’re going to be disappointed.  We only get glimpses of that.

On the other hand, Janzen has an amazing ear for dialogue, and every character has a distinctive voice that feels very real.  And her observations about the Mennonite church, German-American-Canadian culture, and growing up in an eccentric and loving family are really fun to read.

There’s another book in here, though, which is about Janzen coming to terms with her marriage.  At first she seems to have come out of a relatively normal marriage that ended when her husband left her for a man he met on the internet.  Then, in a trickle, we learn more about his abuse, his refusal to hold a job (because it would interfere with his creativity), his financial exploitation, threats of violence, etc.  Janzen seems at times a little too preoccupied with her husband’s sexuality and his new partner’s penis, but it’s very clear this book was written while she was still processing and coming to terms with everything.  The story is told in a very light, breezy, funny style, so it comes as a shock when her ex almost attacks her when she turns up for a court appearance (and he subpoenaed her), and her lawyer advises her to hide in the bathroom after the hearing, so he doesn’t have a chance to attack her.

The two books don’t quite sit together properly, even united by Janzen’s distinctive voice.  I enjoyed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, but don’t feel compelled to read the follow-up.

The ones about the Progressive Age

Triangle: the fire that changed America by David von Drehle; Thunderstruck by Erik Larson; Pox: an American History by Michael Willrich.

Wanted: recommendations for books about the New Deal.  Because between these three — especially the first and last — it’s easy to forget that there was the better part of a century between the early 1900s and now, and for most of that time, America’s workers had rights and stuff.

I tweeted, you see, about the one-star review for Triangle that said it was all about the leftist notion that workplaces should be safe, and not burning to death at your job is a privilege, not a right.  I meant it facetiously, but I got all these responses from Americans who have worked or are working in warehouses with inadequate fire safety facilities, and offices without fire escapes, and so forth.

Not to single America out, but Australia frankly doesn’t get this level of popular history.  (I know, because I spent a whole afternoon looking for a book about the Bubonic plague epidemics that Sydney suffered in the early 1900s.  There was a book years ago, but it’s out of print.)

Triangle covers, obviously, the Triangle Waist Factory fire, where a large number of workers, most of them young immigrant women, burned to death due to inadequate fire safety facilities and the factory owners’ practice of locking a major exit to minimise theft.  It also covers the garment workers strike of the year before, and the campaign, after the fire, for better conditions.

Needless to say, it’s quite a harrowing read in places, but also compelling, especially the strike chapters.  The strike was overtaken to a degree by wealthy sympathisers, many of them women, which caused resentment among the Socialists, many of them men.  This third of the book is almost a diversion, since we see very few of the people involved in the strike in the fire chapters, and safety conditions weren’t on the strikers’ agenda.  But it’s a vivid introduction to the culture of New York’s immigrant classes, Tammany Hall, and the city’s conflicts.

If it had no other value — and I really do recommend it a lot — Triangle would be notable for having the most complete possible list of the fire’s victims.  The press at the time was more concerned in being first than being right, and because many of the casualties came from immigrant backgrounds, they had unfamiliar names that were often misspelled.  Von Drehle worked quite hard to find the most likely spellings and other biographical details about the dead.

Thunderstruck is much less political.  Erik Larson contrasts Hawley Harvey Crippen’s murder of his wife with Marconi’s development of the wireless, which enabled the capture of Crippen.

I’m usually a big fan of Larson’s books, but I was a bit disappointed in this one.  He continually refers to Cora “Belle Elmore” Crippen’s generous figure and sensuality, as if that somehow justifies Crippen’s murder.  He seems to regard her as a thoroughly unpleasant woman, excessively sensual, manipulative and with ambitions beyond her talents.  All of which was true to an extent, but she was also a very popular member of her social circle, well-liked by her friends, which to me doesn’t suggest she was as terrible as Larson makes out.

Marconi is an unpleasant figure, and remains so right up to his dying days (in his later years he supported Mussolini and joined the Fascists.  I don’t think that “he didn’t care for Hitler” entirely ameliorates that, you know?) but at least Larson is aware of it.

There are interesting parallels between Marconi’s work and contemporary digital rights management issues.  Marconi was paranoid about having his ideas stolen, and so, rather than selling his machines, merely licensed them, and their operators, and tried to keep wireless a closed network that he controlled.

The British government wasn’t happy about this — the post office had a monopoly on telegraphy, and regarded itself as the rightful controller of radio — and so, when the Royal Navy licensed the Marconi devices, they promptly started pirating them.  Yarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Pox: an American History is less about smallpox in general, and more about the epidemics that swept America at the turn of the century, and how they led to the formation of a federal health system, plus debates about compulsory vaccination, medical ethics and more.

Now, smallpox was one of my big childhood fears (along with black holes and Daleks), so I started this book thinking that anyone who refused a smallpox vaccine was a dangerous idiot, same as the contemporary anti-vaxxers.  But it’s actually a lot more complicated than that:  the smallpox vaccine was (and still is!) the most dangerous, side-effect-filled one around, and for many people, the vaccine was worse than the disease.  Even if you didn’t get tetanus from an infected sample, as many children did, you might be unable to work for weeks until your body recovered.  For poor people with families to support, that was an unacceptable choice.  Oh yeah, and many states and cities had compulsory vaccination before there was a safe vaccine.

Then there’s the issue where, yeah, smallpox was basically wiped out in the Philippines, but that was because the US army were rounding people up and vaccinating them by force.  In the United States, the same treatment was meted out to African Americans and Italians, and anyone else who seemed a bit shifty.  (Spoilers!  Wealthy white people were treated differently to the poor!  I know, who saw that coming, right?)

In fact, for quite a few years, white Americans, particularly in the South, were quite convinced that smallpox was restricted to black people.  Boy, were they hilariously wrong.  There’s quite an interesting sequence about a public health official, whose name now escapes me and my Kobo is not to hand, who basically made it his mission to promote public health in the South.  And he came to the conclusion that Southerners were intelligent, sensible people who would give you a chance if you were honest with them, but their political institutions were messed up.  That seems pretty universal, really.

(This guy was also the son of a Confederate hero, a very privileged white dude who was quite pro the Jim Crow laws and other general racism, but he was also one of the few public health officials who even acknowledged that African Americans also needed support in their health issues, and he spent his later years empowering black communities to wipe out tuberculosis.  People: complicated.)

Suffice to say, things were pretty complicated and a lot of people died before matters were taken in hand.  Willrich had a lot to say about the growing power of the federal government at the time, much of which I skimmed because it was quite repetitive.  One of those books where the topic is more interesting than the writing.  But it basically boiled down to this:

The federal government finally began to oversee vaccine manufacturing, and imposed restrictions and rules, and shut down any manufacturers who weren’t doing their job properly.

This was hailed as the rise of socialism and the end of American democracy.

So far, so contemporary.  But what we don’t get these days is actual socialists taking offence and saying, nope, this is all so much capitalist bullshit, and a pox (heh) on both your houses.

The one about the serial killer

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber.  The pox book had kind of piqued my hypochondria, so naturally I turned to a book about a nurse who kills people.

This is just straight up true crime, but meticulously researched and well-written.  The first half of the book deals strictly with Charles Cullen, the murderer in question, and frankly I found it tough going, because it’s told in tight POV (based on extensive interviews with the man), and needless to say, he’s an unpleasant character.

The second half details the investigation into his crimes, hampered by the detectives’ lack of medical knowledge, and the hospitals themselves, trying to avoid lawsuits.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and a person walks into it who’s somehow radiant, even though he or she is really just words on a page?  This book has one of those people, a fellow nurse and friend of Charlie’s named Amy, who starts out as his ally and winds up risking her job and health to help capture him.  She’s a thirty-something single mother with a heart condition, an abuse survivor, the kind of woman who knows bullshit when she sees it.  And she’s so thrown when she realises what Charlie is, realising that all her well-honed instincts were completely wrong, that she has to do something.

Graeber has a good ear for dialogue — this has been a good month for those authors! — and Amy just brings the book to life.  If she was a character in a movie, you’d say she was unrealistic.  But she’s brilliant.  She’s basically my heroine.

One chilling postscript:  the final chapter deals with Cullen in jail, trying to donate a kidney to his ex’s brother.  And his chaplain recounts how she got hate mail from a Pentecostal pastor, telling her that if Charlie is saved and goes to heaven, she’ll have done a terrible thing.  That, to me, was more upsetting than the recounting of the murders, because at least Charlie Cullen knows he did something terrible and wrong.

Books read in April 2013

April was a shite month for books, and I don’t apologise for that.  I’ve been busy with Continuum stuff, I’ve been doing overtime at work, I’ve been busy.  (And I’m recording this to remind Future Liz, when she comes to look over her year’s reading, that there’s a very good reason for only reading seven books!)

Avatar: the Last Airbender: The Search (part 1) Gene Luen Yang TV tie-in graphic novel
Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation(2) (volume 2) Scott and David Tipton TV tie-in graphic novel
The Thief Megan Whalen Turner YA
The Queen of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner YA
JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner Richard Marson Biography
Doctor Who in Time and Space: Essays on themes, characters, history and fandom 1963 – 2012 Gillian I. Leitch (ed)
The King of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner YA

Round-up!

“The Search” is the latest in Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novels set after the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  They are deeply unpopular in fandom, imho because they don’t contain much fanservice, but I really love his treatment of the Fire Nation characters and their complex psychology.  In fact, I love it so much that I don’t really care when the rest falls flat, as it occasionally does.

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who – Assimilation(2) volume 2, aside from having a mouthful of a title, was pretty flat storywise.  (Plot-driven crossovers often are, in my experience, even in fan fiction.  Crossovers where characters get drunk and hang out are much more fun.)  But I bought it for the artwork, which is glorious.

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series is like the Vorkosigan Saga, the Mary Russell novels and the Lord Peter Wimsey series: a set of books around a brilliant, unreliable protagonist that I re-read over and over again.  (Turner based her hero on Miles Vorkosigan; Lois McMaster Bujold and Laurie R. King drew inspiration from Lord Peter for Miles Vorkosigan and Mary Russell respectively, and so the circle is closed.)

This time through — not quite through, actually, I still have A Conspiracy of Kings to go, but I find that oddly hard to read for some reason, even though I really enjoy it — I was amazed that any of these books after the first were classified as middle grade novels.  The hero is maimed (by the heroine!) at the beginning of the second book (not a spoiler; it’s on the back cover), is married by the end, and the third book is about politics and marriage, from the perspective of a lowly guardsman.  Whenever someone tells me you can’t do _________ in YA, I’m going to think of Megan Whalen Turner.

Richard Marson’s biography of Doctor Who producer Jon Nathan-Turner was compelling yet awful, like a nerdy version of Heat! magazine.  Turner was a complex person, in a committed relationship for most of his adult life, yet he and his partner were quite open about sexually exploiting fans.  (In the case of the partner, this included attempts at outright sexual assault, including one on the author.)

Turner’s tenure was the most turbulent time in Doctor Who‘s history, some of which was caused by circumstances beyond his control.  Other parts … you know, there’s a reason why Russell T Davies never engaged with fandom, and why Steven Moffat should never have tried Twitter.  Doctor Who fandom can be toxic, and if you have the ego it takes to survive in the entertainment industry, you’re going to wind up being equally toxic back.  And not just to the fans:  there’s a really ugly account of JN-T spitting in actress Nicola Bryant’s face after she joked about sleeping with a gay man he fancied.

The information in this biography would make fascinating entries in, say, a history of the culture of the BBC (which I would totally read), but as an account of an individual’s life, much of it felt prurient.  But then, one suspects JN-T would have appreciated that.

Doctor Who in Time and Space is a recent collection of essays about … you know.  The JN-T book made me curious about the fanzines of the ’80s, and Google Books threw this up as a result.

I am … disappointed.  There are a few good essays here, including an outstanding piece by J. M. Frey called “Whose Doctor?”, about Sydney Newman and Doctor Who‘s ties to Canada, and colonialism and cultural cringe.  That alone was worth the $16 I paid for the Kindle edition.

A lot of the essays, though, just made me cranky.  For example, “Nostalgia for Empire, 1963-1974” by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom is based on the premise that Doctor Who had no political stories after 1974.  Even if you narrow “political” down to “about imperialism”, which is the authors’ particular area if interest, that’s nonsense.  Robert Holmes wrote a whole lot of Tom Baker stories about imperialism’s first cousin, colonialism, albeit not always with grace.  But then, he wasn’t exactly subtle, either.  And if we take a wider view of “political”, the McCoy era was basically one big critique of Thatcherism, racism, consumerism, etc.

But the essay that particularly annoyed me was “A Country Made From Metal? The “Britishness” of Human-Machine Marriage in Series 31″ by Kate Flynn.  This is ostensibly an examination of the Pond-Williams marriage, only it seems to take the premise that Rory is the only person that counts in that relationship.  For example, Leadworth is described as “Rory’s home town”, when it was also Amy’s.  Additionally, at different points the author describes Amy as “for the dads”, “hypersexualised” and “shrew”.  (There’s a whole section about how Rory is emasculated by women who don’t appreciate him.)  It’s a shame, because there were a lot of interesting ideas in this essay, that could be further applied to series 7 and the Ponds’ departure, but the misogyny was just disappointing, especially coming from a woman.  (I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.)

Finally, I just didn’t find the collection hugely well edited.  Unless “the wizard Gandolph” is a figure in some media I haven’t yet encountered.

Fake Real Geek Girl

You’ve heard about Fake Geek Girls, right?  Terrible, conniving women who spend time and money on costumes and merch, studying a fandom, not to mention paying for hotels and convention memberships, all so they can PRETEND TO BE FANS, to LURE INNOCENT YOUNG GEEK MEN into their TRAP.  Said trap being, as far as I can tell, that they don’t want to have sex with the men who desire yet hate them.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.  But the idea is out there — not just being perpetuated by actualfax journalists and industry professionals, but lurking on Tumblr, Reddit and 4Chan.  There are no female geeks.  They’re just pretending.  Women are cheerleaders, which is the female equivalent of the jock, and the jock is evil.  Also, high school: never actually ended.

(I’m not the only one who has that nightmare, right?  I’ve had so many dreams where I somehow forgot to complete my science class that I have trouble remembering that not only did I finish science, but I came fourth in my grade.  Which isn’t all that impressive, because it was multistrand science, and also I missed, like, a term due to illness that I never made up, so actually, it wasn’t so much that I was good at it, as I was just in a really average grade.)

Now, I’m a Real Geek Girl.  I even have the business cards to prove it!

(…Well, minicards.  I felt like a wanker as I ordered them, but every time I go to a con, I find myself wishing I had something to hand out with my Twitter and blog addresses on it.  And you can also put text on the back.  So I have Real Geek Girl cards.  Or I will when they arrive.)

I’ve been a Trekkie since I was ten.  I have childhood memories of Doctor Who.  I started my first fan fiction when I was 12.  I’m helping to run a science fiction convention, for heaven’s sake!

Doth the lady protest too much?

Well, yeah.

I love Voyager, the wrong version of Star Trek.  (It’s full of women, you know.)  As a child, it was Sylvester McCoy’s era of Doctor Who that I watched (it was full of women, you know), and as an adult, it was New Who (it marginalises men!) that made me fall in love with the series and seek out Classic Who again.  Just like my subconscious thinks I’m a fake high school graduate, my jerkbrain thinks I’m an imposter.

Fandom loves a hierarchy, especially if it can put women close to the bottom.  (Along with other marginalised groups, of course, and I don’t mean to dismiss or erase the experiences of genderqueer fans and fans of colour.  But at the same time, I can’t talk about their experiences either.)

She’s not really a fan.  She’s fannish, but she shouldn’t be.  She’s a fan, but look what she’s into.  

A few years ago, when I worked at Borders, a customer annoyed me so much that I turned our exchange into a crude comic.

failcustomer

(Actual fact: there is a rare flower that blooms whenever the “City of Death” score is played.)

(Incidentally, I actually do have a chin.)

This isn’t just the fannish patriarchy.  The female-dominated end of fandom has its own internal hierarchy, with fic writers, vidders and cosplayers at the top, artists in the middle (“Anyone can draw!”) and lurkers — consumers, our own audience — at the bottom.

(For some ranting on the subject, come to the Lurker Panel at Continuum this year!  And if you’re wondering if it was a challenge to round up a panel’s worth of lurkers and persuade them to speak in public, you’d be quite correct.)

And crossing gender barriers is the idea that you’re not a “real” fan if you only like one era, or one spin-off, or you got into it because you like an actor.  There’s a reason Laura Mead’s essay in Chicks Unravel Time, “David Tennant’s Bum”, got so much attention from reviewers — she was proudly proclaiming that she was the Wrong Type Of Fan.

(The fact that her essay was also an exploration of the ways the Tenth Doctor represented a different kind of masculinity in his heroism seemed to go unnoticed — it’s not a new thing to say about the Doctor, but it has traditionally come bundled with baggage about asexuality, ie, he’s not a traditionally masculine hero and he wouldn’t touch anything so disgusting as a woman.)

I have this theory that, aside from the human love of constructing hierarchies, there’s a strong element of insecurity at work.

I mean, I don’t give credence to the stereotype of the nerd with no social skills, who lives with his parents in a room full of action figures, but I think a lot of us had a hard time in high school.  Bullies will latch on to anything that makes a person stand out, and only the very self-confident can keep that from touching them.

(And that self-confidence is what makes those kids popular.  Not that I could see it when I was a bad tempered 15 year old who hated everything and everyone but especially the popular kids.  But looking back, they were just as weird and awkward as everyone else, they just pretended they didn’t care.  I should have spent less time hating them and more time trying to cultivate that independence.)

When I was 11 and 12, some girls in my class used to slam me against a brick wall and shout, “BEAM ME UP SCOTTY!”

Those girls?  My best friends.  You know, when they weren’t bullying me, or belittling me for liking things they didn’t enjoy, or using me as the butt of their jokes…

I did eventually figure out that actually they weren’t my friends at all, but even now, I sometimes find that I tolerate poor treatment from people just because they say they’re my friend, and I get very, very defensive if people tease me about the stuff I’m into.

And it’s that defensiveness that creates these toxic hierarchies, these cultures of exclusion.  If what I like becomes popular, there won’t be room for me.  If there are new people coming into my fandom, I need to establish myself at the top of the peak, because what if they turn out to be really popular?

And then, sometimes, that gets tied up with the misogyny that permeates our society.  It’s a mixture of fear, male entitlement, and the psychological scars of adolescence.

Or maybe I’m just extrapolating from my own experience to the entire human race, which is probably a bad idea, but I feel like there might be a grain of truthiness somewhere.

Books read in March 2013

The Dust Bowl Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan History
Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen with annotations by David M. Shapard Classic
The Death Maze Ariana Franklin Crime
Relics of the Dead Ariana Franklin Crime
Eleanor of Aquitaine: by the wrath of God, Queen of England Alison Weir History
The Assassin’s Prayer Ariana Franklin Crime
The Shattering Karen Healey YA NZ
Gilt Katherine Longshore YA
Thus Was Adonis Murdered Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Shortest Way to Hades Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Sirens Sang of Murder Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Sybil in her Grave Sarah Caudwell Crime
When We Wake Karen Healey YA NZ
The Devotion of Suspect X Keigo Higashino Crime

Oh sure, this month the copy and paste will work!  How I love the capriciousness of WordPress!

Anyway, 14 books this morning, the year’s maximum so far, and achieved primarily because travel is a great opportunity for reading.  Highlights, lowlights, lights:

The Dust Bowl is a tie-in to a documentary of the same name, and it’s a compelling, thorough history of the United States’ greatest man-made disaster (so far).  What made it notable for me was that I didn’t know the dust bowl was caused by unsustainable agricultural methods coupled with a land boom — I had always been told it was a natural event.

I read the first of Ariana Franklin’s medieval forensic mysteries last month, and it had me eye-rolling quite a bit, but I was also keen to see what happened next.

What happened next was that I eyerolled even more, while nursing increasing contempt for most of the male characters and a good portion of the women.  By the end of the fourth book, I would have given up on the series all together, except the author’s death brought it to a merciful end anyway.

I was particularly troubled by Franklin’s portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine as a complete ninny, so I picked up Alison Weir’s biography.  I instantly found what must be Franklin’s major source for the series — some descriptions of historical figures were almost word for word — but finished it thinking that, yes, Franklin got Eleanor badly wrong.  She was a complex woman, of course, and not always likable even after one takes into account the misogyny of the men who documented her life, but she was never stupid.

Gilt by Katherine Longshore is a YA novel covering the reign and execution of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII.  Catherine’s a difficult figure, on account of how she was stupid.  Granted, she was very young — in her teens — when Henry married her, but she only had to put up with him for a few years, and then she’d have been a rich and powerful widow.  Instead, she had blatant affairs, and then it came out she had been the opposite of a chaste maiden before her marriage, and off came her head.

Gilt covers this period from the POV of Kitty, one of Catherine’s friends and ladies in waiting, and it nicely captures Catherine’s selfishness, the danger and glamour of Tudor court life, and the rape culture that surrounded it.  Longshore also makes Catherine quite likable, to an extent, without losing sight of her failings.  It was an easy read, but a good one.

I didn’t intentionally set out to read all of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar fics, but I started one, and found that I couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

This is a British series about a legal historian and a quintet (sometimes a quartet) of barristers who solve mysteries.  The Wikipedia page compares it to Enid Blyton, and seems to imply some level of immaturity and a lack of profundity.  THAT IS A LIE.  I mean, yes, it’s about as deep as a puddle, but it’s also terribly entertaining and funny (if you like that sort of thing), and if you can picture Enid Blyton writing about kinky sex, murder and international tax planning, you should probably come hang out with me so we can be best friends.

…I should say that persons whose taste for social justice outweighs their sense of irony should probably steer clear of the series, because once you’ve categorised murder as an inconvenience to probate courts and Just Not Cricket, nothing else seems very serious either.  So you have the description of Julia looking “slightly disheveled, like one of Priam’s daughters after an unusually trying rape”, and Professor Tamar’s concern that Cantrip’s educational background puts him at a disadvantage in the company of others, ie, he went to Cambridge, poor boy.  So don’t come complaining to me about how Caudwell needs to be called out on her privilege.

With the release of Karen Healey’s When We Wake, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t read The Shattering, her last book.  TERRIBLE OVERSIGHT.  But now I’ve read both, so that’s okay.

Reading Healey can be a bit disconcerting — we’re about the same age, we both live in the Southern Hemisphere, we read the same blogs — oh yeah, and we have mutual friends.  But she doesn’t know me at all.

Nevertheless, because I read her blog and follow her Tumblr, it can be quite difficult to separate Healey’s voice from those of her characters.  For one thing, I can often go through her writing and link ideas back to YA discussions and blog posts.  I guess you might say I can see her thought processes a bit too clearly.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed these two books.  The Shattering is set in New Zealand, and although I found it highly predictable, it was a good, compelling read.

When We Wake was even better — set in Melbourne of the 21st and 22nd centuries, the Australian society of the future neatly and depressingly extrapolated from the current day.

Tegan is accidentally shot, and when she wakes up, a hundred years have passed, and she’s the guinea pig in a project to revive cryogenically frozen soldiers.  Australia is now a world superpower, with gay marriage, religious tolerance — oh, and a strict policy of no migrants.  Ever.  And refugee camps in the north.  

Tegan’s an instant celebrity, but aside from the culture shock and the trauma of waking up and finding everyone she loves has died, there’s the minor problem of the fringe groups targeting her.  And the conspiracy.  Yeah, almost forgot about that.

When We Wake was a thoroughly good read, and I wouldn’t have put it down even if I hadn’t been on a plane, but fair warning: I kind of sobbed through the last third.  The flight attendants were a little concerned.

Finally, The Devotion of Suspect X is a translation of a Japanese bestseller, which is in turn part of a series, which has been turned into a drama, which I belatedly realised I started watching last year.

I didn’t much care for the TV series, because the female lead was basically an idiot, which made it hard to watch.  In the novel, both main characters are men, but that means the main female characters are kind of passive and a bit dull.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story itself very much.  I was less enchanted by the translation, which was quite clumsy in places, and, for example, referred to kanji as “Chinese characters”.

My last days in Tokyo

The Skytree is the tallest structure in Tokyo.  It’s a combination TV transmitter and shopping mall, shopping (Omo tells me) being the national pasttime in Japan.  It probably comes from having only one football code.

It was a grey, rainy day, and also it costs an exorbitant sum of money to ascend to the top, so we stuck to shopping.  Well, shopping and navigating crowds.  They go together.  Birthday presents were purchased for certain people, and I was quite excited to find the Japanese translations of the Harry Potter novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.

Why are the picture-inserting options for iPad versus browser so completely different?  It’s messing with the look of my blog, man!

Anyway, the Potter covers are simple and photographic, whereas the Bujold covers — Japanese translations of western books are usually split into two volumes — are illustrative.  They bear almost no resemblance to the actual text, yet are somehow more accurate than the American covers, and about eighty times more attractive.  Nicely done, Japanese publishers, nicely done.

MORE SAKURA! MORE!

The next day, Thursday, I had breakfast with a friend, and we found our way to a bookstore in Shibuya that also contained a reading area — like a library — plus a cafe, a konbini, a high-end stationery section… it was heaven.  Although I did make the mistake of trying a 25,000 yen pen, and now I can’t get it out of my head…

Afterwards I met up with Omo and Z, and we went to the Mucha exhibit in Roppongi.  It felt a bit silly, seeing a western artist in Japan, but hey, you take your opportunities where you can get them.  And if I’d had more time, I would have gone to the National Museum of Western Art as well.  (They have a Sally Morgan!)

The exhibit was amazing, and completely transcended the need for English labels.  It was also very crowded, but we kind of expected that.  Well, I did.  Except for the throngs in the gift shop — those were terrifying.

Nevertheless, I managed to find something appealing.  I really enjoy Japan’s approach to creating merchandise for high art.

Friday … I left.

Though not before we ate a dodgy breakfast at the airport that made us all unwell.  Having recovered from that — thank heavens! — I bid farewell to Omo and Z, and set off for home.

The trip home was fairly uneventful, although if I ever have to spend four hours at Hong Kong again, I’m going to budget for a visit to an airport lounge.  Because wow, did I have a headache.  And then we had our bags checked as we were boarding the plane — the signs told us we had Australian Customs and Border Security to thank for this — and passengers were forbidden to bring their own water onto the flight.  I almost had to throw out my water bottle, which made me rather cross, as it cost $20.  Plus, I have chronic dry mouth and throat — it comes with the rheumatoid arthritis — so I actually need that litre of water.  Fortunately the flight attendants refilled my bottle after I boarded, so all that was really achieved was a waste of water.

Some hours later, I got home, and I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of the last two days sleeping.  At first I thought it was just post-travel exhaustion, but I’m beginning to worry the small child behind me with the terrible cough was contagious…

Hugo nominations!

I’m back in Australia, and some time in the next couple of days I’ll get around to blogging about my last few days in Japan.

But at this moment, I want to jump streams and casually mention that Chicks Unravel Time has been nominated for a Hugo Award!

We’re nominated for Best Related Work, and there’s some stiff competition.  For one thing, we’re up against Chicks Dig Comics, which is from the same publisher, has some overlap in contributors, and is probably an excellent book in its own right.  (I haven’t read it, which is shameful, but have you seen my to-read pile?  I’ll get to it some time in 2015, I’m sure.)

Catching up

Ooops! Sort of fell off the blogging wagon there!

You see, we were meant to go to Odaiba on Saturday, but Omo was feeling under the weather, so I went to Shibuya by myself. Then, Sunday, we were planning to go to the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, but I woke up with a terrible cold, so I slept all morning and then we went to Kinokuniya in Shinjuku. Monday, we did get out to the ramen museum, but it was not at all as advertised (ie, awesome) so that was a disappointment. Tuesday … Tuesday was yesterday, right? Z rejoined us after her trip south, and we visited Akihabara and Harajuku, before going to a cherry blossom party in the evening with Omo’s flatmates and their friends.

There! All caught up!

FINE. DETAILS.

Shibuya

I don’t know if Shibuya actually reminded me of New York, or if I was just in a similar mood because I was by myself. It’s certainly busy and urban, surrounded by skyscrapers and the giant LCD screens that lead people to compare the Shibuya scramble to Times Square.

But I didn’t much care for Times Square — it was almost shocking in its dirtiness and chaos, especially since I had just come from Central Park — whereas I quite liked Shibuya. Tokyo is a very clean city in general, but it was particularly noticeable in such a busy place. With no garbage bins. (Following the sarin attack on the subway in the … ’90s? Bins sort of vanished from the Japanese landscape. They’re around, but rare, and will often take only one kind of garbage, eg, cans but not paper. People just carry their rubbish until they find a bin, which is very civilised, but I do seem to be finding a lot of wrappers in my handbag of an evening.)

My first stop in Shibuya was the Tobacco & Salt Museum. And don’t give me that funny look. I really like history, especially the history of commodities, especially if it’s only 100 yen to get into the museum.

And, considering it had barely any English at all, I really liked the Tobacco & Salt Museum! Especially the tobacco levels. Sorry, salt, but I’m just not that into you. Whereas I find smoking quite interesting in theory — it’s only in practice, where you get the horrible smells and the passive smoking and the burned bits in your clothes from other people’s flying cigarette ash that I start thinking it should be banned forever, or at least taxed into non-existence.

Like I said, there was very little English, but I found the exhibits fairly self-explanatory. The early smuggling of tobacco into Japan! The widespread adoption of tobacco use in the Meiji Era! The twentieth century: 100 years of cigarette packaging! Pipes!

There did come a point where I was basically wandering around quoting Mad Men under my breath, and thinking I totally need to rewatch that episode where Burt Cooper wants Sterling Cooper to take on Japanese clients, and Roger has his racist post-WW2 outburst, and Don stands around looking manly and thinking manly thoughts. But hey, it’s a good show.

The museum’s fourth level was devoted to an exhibit of art depicting the use of tobacco. It had a few really amazing paintings, and lots of really mediocre ones, which (of course) were the ones being sold in postcard form. Such is life.

After the museum I stumbled across a book/DVD/CD store — Japanese retailers are big into integrated entertainment — where I had a good time looking at Japanese releases of Western movies and TV. Sad fact: Japan has Torchwood all the way up to “Miracle Day”, but the most recent Doctor Who I could find was from 2006. Maybe “Doomsday” scared them off. Likewise, I couldn’t find any Avatar: The last Airbender, which has aired here, but wasn’t hugely successful. Probably because the Japanese went, “Wow, America, you can do anime now. That’s so cute.” Which is fair, but when I think of the missed opportunities for merch, I get sad.

I was pretty hungry after that, but where to eat? I was in one of the great shopping districts of Tokyo, and where there’s shops, there’s food.

Only, lots of it was Italian food, which tends to be pretty heavy on the cheese and cream. And I found I wasn’t quite brave enough to venture into a cafe without a single Japanese speaker to help me out.

So I wound up getting lunch from a konbini, a convenience store. This consisted of two kinds of onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with fish in the middle, a bottle of orange juice and a can of Red Bull. (I felt oddly tired by this time, for reasons that became apparent later.) Total cost: about 500 yen. Everyone who said food was prohibitively expensive in Japan was probably trying to buy melons or something.

(Don’t buy melons in Japan. Strawberries are another thing that are supposed to be hugely expensive, and I did see them going for 600 yen a half-punnet in Shibuya, but out in Katsushika, where I’m staying, I’ve been buying whole punnets for 280 yen, which is about what I’d expect to pay in Australia.)

I tried to shop for clothes after lunch, but I just couldn’t. I stuck my nose into Shibuya 109, which is supposed to be aimed at women in their early 30s, but there was nothing at all that appealed to me.

Omo later explained that Shibuya 109 — and Shibuya in general — is dominated by gyaru stores. Gyaru is a Japanese style that’s hyper-feminine — false eyelashes, false nails, the highest possible heels — but which emphasises sexiness over being kawaii — cute. It’s amazingly cool to look at, but doesn’t suit me in the least.

(I find myself constantly on the verge of thinking that Japan values the floral, pasteltastic kind of femininity, but I think that’s a selection bias at work. Omo’s house is amazingly pretty — there’s floral wallpaper, the doors and skirting boards are pink, it’s all women with no men allowed — and my first thought when I walked in was, “Oh wow, I’m not remotely feminine enough to stay here!” And since that moment, I’ve been noticing the femme displays in department stores and so forth.)

Anyway, I had a browse at Forever 21 — which is a gyaru brand as well — but nothing fit. That’s the other problem with clothes shopping in Japan: in Australia, I’m completely average, and it’s only the inability of designers to cater for women with hips and bellies and breasts that makes it hard for me to find clothes. In Japan, I’m a fair bit rounder than the average, and lots of stores don’t stock anything higher than an L or XL. Forever 21 started at XXS and ran all the way up to M.

I did buy jewellery, though. Earrings and a necklace, but the necklace is already broken. Oh well!

Finally, I realised that there was a Loft in Shibuya. Loft seems to sell everything from homewares to gifts, but I’m especially in love with their stationery section. Japanese stationery is just really, really good, okay?

Problem was, I couldn’t seem to find the store. You’d think it would be hard, misplacing a six-storey department store, but apparently I managed it. I’m not saying that I wandered around in circles for an hour before I finally found Loft, but it was a fair while.

Luckily, within Loft, I found the greatest invention ever.

A cocktail bar.

In a stationery/homewares/make-up/gift shop.

It was amazing. I really don’t understand why this isn’t a universal practice.

I had a nice sit, and ate a refreshing salad — my konbini lunch was a few hours in the past by then — and drank something green with gin in it.

It was lovely.

Then I bought some gifts, and some stationery, and made my way back to Katsushika. Where I basically collapsed, because it turned out I was so tired because I was coming down with a cold. Or rather, I had been fighting a cold since I got off the plane at Haneda Airport, and it was finally making its move.

So I ate a punnet of strawberries — full of vitamin C, you know — and drank some more orange juice, and went to bed.

Only I didn’t sleep so well, and when I woke up, Omo and I agreed that there was no way I was going to Yokohama, so I might as well go back to sleep.

Which I did. And it was great.

I felt much better after that, so Omo and I got dressed and headed into Shinjuku for the afternoon.

Shinjuku

Shinjuku is another major shopping district. It’s also home to Kinokuniya, a major Japanese book chain. They have a store in Sydney, and when the day comes that they finally open in Melbourne, I will have to seriously consider returning to retail. The Shinjuku store is the main one — the mothership.

Of course, its selection of English novels was limited, but I was mostly there to look at English translations of Japanese novels, and they had plenty of those. I bought two more crime novels, and gave serious thought to a few books that I think my brother might enjoy, except they were all giant hardcovers. Sorry, little brother, but your birthday present will be from Japan via BookDepository.

I was also tempted by a book that claimed to be a collection of Japanese science-fiction, except that most of the contributors were American. Nice try? Cementing my decision, I noticed that one of the contributors is the author of this post, which I found shockingly UScentric and generally dubious even before I went to Japan. Although Omo’s rage blackouts as I read it to her later were pretty funny.

Finally, I bought a Japanese magazine about Sherlock Holmes. No, I don’t read Japanese, but I really liked the illustrations.

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(There was also a big feature on Sherlock, but, you know, *snore*)

We wound up eating at an “Irish” pub, partially because I was sick and wanted comfort food, but also because I was on the verge of a blood sugar low, and that seemed like the most appealing place. Bit embarrassing, but they did an excellent gin and tonic, so stop judging me.

Then Omo took me to a gothic lolita department store. IT WAS AMAZING.

So you don’t get the wrong idea, department stores in Japan aren’t vast buildings housing a single company that sells lots of goods, but narrow skyscrapers that hold lots of businesses. In this case, all the businesses were related to the gothic lolita subculture. Most sold clothes and accessories, but there was a wig shop, a store that sold anime merch, and more.

Now, I, obviously, am not a lolita, but I really like the aesthetic, while recognising that it is not remotely for me at all. But occasionally I have yearnings, especially if you put a really well-cut steampunk suit in front of me.

The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum

The ramen museum gets talked up a lot on blogs and in travel books, and it’s supposed to be a blast. And it probably is, if you read Japanese.

If you’re monolingual, you get a rather claustrophobic walk through an indoor recreation of 1958 Tokyo — much smaller than the photos suggested — and an abbreviated ramen menu. Which is fair enough — it’s a bit rude to expect a country to cater to me linguistically — but it was a bit of a hike to get to Shin-Yokohama, and the ramen wasn’t even that good.

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I must say, though, I liked the bit in the pamphlet about how the museum’s creator loved his home town and had a passion for ramen, so he created a ramen museum in the city of his birth. More people should do that. I’m not just saying that ‘cos I love museums, honest.

Akihabara and Harajuku, followed by a picnic under the cherry trees

Omo and I had no particular plans for Tuesday, save that Z was getting back from Kansai in the early afternoon, and Omo wanted to play the taiko game. You know the traditional Japanese drums? There’s an arcade game where the drums are simulated, like Guitar Hero only more banging things, and Omo’s quite good. Well, she’d want to be — last week she played so intensely, her hands started bleeding.

Akihabara is where technology … happens, or so I am given to understand, and there were arcades on every corner. I mean, literally, every corner.

So we didn’t have any trouble finding the game, only there were these two guys playing it already. One was just in practice mode. The other was … well, he brought his own sticks. And he had a bag stretched over the game’s drum for some reason. And he was very, very good.

So we slunk away and had lunch. I ate the greatest hamburger of my entire life, so well done, Akihabara. Then we found a bookstore — it’s a sickness, it really is — and eventually went back and finally played the game.

I suck quite badly, but I think I just need practice. No one’s hands bled this time.

Game completed, we met up with Z and decided that Akihabara was a bit of a bust. Lots of sex shops. Lots of computer stores. I saw a young man coming out of an arcade wearing traditional Japanese clothing — hakama and a kimono — and a bowler hat. I was torn between being super impressed at his dapperness, and wondering if this was the Akihabara equivalent of a fedora-wearing neckbeard.

We decided to go to Harajuku. Ah, Harajuku, where the young folks where the street styles, etc. Not on a Tuesday afternoon, apparently. I mean, there were teenagers, and they were wearing cool clothes, but the famous outlandishness of the Harajuku scene was not in evidence. Which is probably good, because one wouldn’t like to be staring at innocent people like they were exhibits in a zoo, but also a bit disappointing, because SPECTACLE.

Instead, we were off to go stare at innocent boy bands like they were exhibits in a zoo. Well, Omo and Z did. I had a look around, then waited outside with my book. Not, I add, because I was bored or sulky or passive-aggressively hurrying them along! I’m just not really into boy bands, even when I enjoy their music, and it was a really good book.

Harakuku, it turns out, has a lot of stores selling boy band merch. One was at the bottom of a very steep, narrow, scary staircase.

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I stand by my decision to stay out on the street. I’d already tripped on one flight of stairs for the day.

Also, loitering out the front, I got to see a young Japanese woman, aged about 20 (I’d guess) pause in the middle of the entrance, throw her arms and gaze upwards and cry, “Oppa!”

“Oppa” is a Korean honoriffic meaning “big brother”. K-pop fans address their idols as “oppa”, except me and Omo, ‘cos we’re not Korean and most of those boys are younger than us. But it’s not an unusual thing to hear in the vicinity of a boy band store.

What was unusual was that the woman was addressing SexyZone, a Japanese band. And SexyZone are … I think the oldest is 16? One was born in 2000, which means he’s much too young to be in a group with that name. Suffice to say, it’s a bit odd that the woman was addressing them as “oppa”. But I stood where she stood and looked where she looked, and I can’t think who else she was referring to.

(Speaking of “oppa”, and Korean honoriffics, for lack of anything better to do, I once watched the Korean dub of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and there was a lovely bit of characterisation where Katara addressed Sokka as “oppa”, but Azula disrespectfully addressed Zuko by his name. It was a very neat thing, and something you can’t quite convey in English, even with Azula’s use of diminutive nicknames for Zuko.)

I was still meditating on this incident — okay, fine, I was tweeting about it — when the owner of the shop came out and yelled at me to move on. It was mostly in Japanese, but I got the gist, and I found it very strange. But Z and Omo emerged a few minutes later, saying he had kicked out all the customers who were browsing, saying that anyone who wasn’t definitely going to buy something had to leave. I still found it strange, but I suppose I’d been in Japan for 10 days, and bad customer service was bound to happen at some point.

We visited one more idol store, and Omo found something rather special, but I’ll let her blog about that.

By this time it was getting dark, so we made our way to Ueno Station to meet Omo’s flatmates for the hanami — the cherry blossom viewing party.

Hanami

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I’m not a very aesthetically sophisticated person, and I’m not good at sitting still and contemplating things. I really like Tokyo’s sakura, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sit under one and view it for more than a few minutes.

Luckily, it turns out that Japanese festivals are a lot like the ones in Australia — an excellent excuse to eat food and drink a lot in the company of friends. The Japanese versions are just prettier, that’s all.

So we sat under the trees, about half a dozen of us, and ate bento and drank … let’s see, there were two kinds of wine, sake, shochu and … maybe there was a third kind of wine. Yes, there was!

I only tried one of each drink — unlike a certain friend who was given a whole cup of shochu, drank it and then regailed us with her feelings about idol groups — because I didn’t want to seem like an Aussie yobbo, and also I hadn’t brought any alcohol myself. (Not that a certain friend seemed like an Aussie yobbo! Her Japanese got better with every drink. It was terrifying and amazing.) But it was a very pleasant night.

And I am, in fact, quite fond of looking at sakura. Tokyo’s landscape is dominated by mid-twentieth century high density housing, and it would seem quite bleak and utilitarian if there weren’t so many trees. And it’s really amazing to be sitting on the train, looking out at a predominantely grey landscape, and then there’s an explosion of pink and white as you pass a cherry tree. Probably even more amazing if this is coming at the end of a northern hemisphere winter. I’m team cherry blossom, me.

I started this post in the morning, and now a day has passed, and I’ve done all kinds of things in the meantime, but I’m much too tired to blog about it now. Stay tuned for a SkyTree adventure (today), my last day in Tokyo (tomorrow), and some kind of post about the bicycles of Tokyo. But not just yet, because right now, I really need to eat some mochi and read my book.