Friday, April 29, 2011

ramble: research books bought & read, April 2011

This month's list of the non-fiction and classics I've read and bought is heavy on the latter. For, alas, the local symphony just held its annual secondhand book fair to raise funds and to torment all nearby bibliophiles.

So, as my lair-slash-library, the Bookcave, requires regular feedings of paperbacks and hardcovers (or it demands human sacrifice instead), I... bought more than fifty books.

(Hey! It's self-preservation! I must satisfy the Bookcave! I don't want to get eaten!)

So now I have no money 'til, oh, the end of time or thereabouts, but--totally worth it.

I think my haul ended up about two-thirds non-fiction/classics and one-third fiction (lots of fantasy/paranormal novels), but I'm just listing the former. As usual, since I don't finish (or even get very far into) books I don't like, the 'books read' part of this undertaking is really a list of recommendations; the 'books bought' bit is pure adventure.

Off we go:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

inspiration: "Portrait of a Lady with a Book" by Antoine Vestier

PORTRAIT OF A LADY WITH A BOOK, NEXT TO A RIVER SOURCE*


-- Antoine Vestier (c. 1785)
[image via Wikimedia]

* what an extraordinarily prosaic title

Monday, April 25, 2011

inspiration: "Mad Song" by William Blake

MAD SONG

The wild winds weep,
And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs enfold:
But lo! the morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling beds of dawn
The earth do scorn.

Lo! to the vault
Of paved heaven,
With sorrow fraught
My notes are driven:
They strike the ear of night,
Make weep the eyes of day;
They make mad the roaring winds,
And with tempests play.

Like a fiend in a cloud
With howling woe,
After night I do crowd
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the east
From whence comforts have increased;
For light doth seize my brain
With frantic pain.

-- William Blake, Poetical Sketches (1783)
[via Wikisource here; read the whole work here]

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

recommendation: "Red Riding Hood" (2011 movie)

Red Riding Hood surprised me. The only marketing for it that I caught emphasized a love triangle and... and... um, not much else. Love triangle mashed into the Red Riding Hood fairytale. And sure, this was indeed enough to snare me. I like a good love triangle (emphasis on good love triangle); I like fairytales: done.

But I was expecting only a semi-realized fantasy, with a mopey, whiny love triangle and some half-assed worldbuilding. I wasn't expecting a lush, mysterious dark fantasy with astonishingly lovely visuals, beautiful costuming, a wicked cool soundtrack, and a strong plot centered around a strong woman. And that's what Red Riding Hood turned out to be.

Valerie (Red Riding Hood, played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried) is not in love with two men and as such there is no real love triangle. She loves one man, and both of the men interested in her ultimately respect that (despite moments of understandably human disappointment and/or demandingness). Valerie is also no damsel in distress. The small forest village in which she and her family live is a hunting ground: for as far back as she can remember, a wolf has stalked its inhabitants, but she is still not afraid to venture out into the woods. The movie begins with the death of Valerie's sister at the wolf's hand (um, paw) and suddenly Valerie's problems are bigger than just her arranged marriage to the man she doesn't love.

And Valerie realizes this, and deals with it without running away from it. Yes, she still longs to be with her beloved, but this is only part of her story, part of her life. Her story encompasses more than romance, but the fact that it does encompass romance is important. A badass chick can be badass and still long to love and be loved.

But there's a time for love and a time for badassery, and Valerie tackles both. (This is an explicit point made by the movie: one of the first scenes alludes to Valerie killing a rabbit in the company of her best friend/future lover, and one of the final scenes depicts her handling a human corpse--in the company of her lover.) As the villagers struggle to identify and kill the wolf, whom they suspect is a werewolf and probably one of them,* Valerie struggles, too--to deal with her grief, her concern for the safety of her loved ones (especially her grandmother, who lives just outside the village), and the way the villagers turn on her when they suspect she is connected to the wolf.

However, Valerie doesn't just fight, in the sense of flailing around wildly with nunchucks/a giant mace/whatever because that's what badass chicks are supposed to do. When she has no opportunity to escape, she accepts her fate with dignity. When she does have the chance to escape, she accepts help with grace. When she has a choice, she takes what actions she can, trying to protect and preserve her family and friends, not just her own desires.


And she doesn't have superduper magical smackdown powers; she is just a girl. This is so important. She isn't strong in spite of being a girl, and she doesn't need to be a Supergirl to be strong, either. She is strong because she is female and because of her limitations and because she is a person with very little except a powerful heart, mind and spirit. Because to be strong, that's all you need.

In fact, Valerie is a grown woman with (here comes more feminist theory**) agency, who makes her choices according to one guiding virtue: honesty. She is honest with herself, with those who love her, and she faces tough truths without bowing to her very real fear. Bravery is not measured by fearlessness; it is measured by action in the face of fear, and so Valerie is an exceptionally brave character. And, in a story with such a frightening current of Trust No One, Valerie is truly our heroine because she always trusts herself, and is always true to herself.

Now this is a fairytale I believe in.

The movie does have its flaws. The story could have been resolved in multiple ways; I don't think I would have chosen the existing conclusion, though I wasn't terribly unhappy with it.*** There were many moments where the story could have been pushed further, into more sensuous, gorier, crueler realms. But there'd have to be a non-PG-rated cut if I was to get all the symbolic explorations of blood, sacrifice, lust and consumption that I always want (especially in a tale about Red!). The humiliation via iron wolf mask is just one such gorgeous, troubling metaphor in a torrent of much bigger questions about identity, otherness, and betrayal, and I'm so glad it was included and even briefly dwelt on, but oh my, I really wanted to see so much more in the unsettling vein of Eat me up!

But that's what imagination is for. And Red Riding Hood is visual candy for the imagination. The setting, costuming, and cinematography all combine to create a fairytale world that looks like the "real world," but not quite, inspired by medieval Europe, but not trying to be "accurate." Unsurprisingly, I'm sure, I think it would be fabulous to be Valerie for Hallowe'en, in one of her beautiful long soft pale woolen dresses and her armwarmers and her sweeping red cloak. Some of the shots of her in particular are just breathtaking, all red and snow and moon. The soundtrack, with two songs by Fever Ray (one [below] for a crazy awesome paganesque bonfire dance party), is totally fabulous, both uneasy and dreamy.



The style and feel of Red Riding Hood is ultimately richer than its substance, but all of it together created for me a place of bliss and wonder and peace (weirdly enough). Basically, this movie took the Happy Place of Faerymagickalness out of my dreams and made it real, and this totally made me cry--because it made me super happy. My inner five-year-old and fifteen-year-old were as delighted as my current self. This is something to be celebrated. Fairytales aren't really for adults just like they aren't really for children. They're simply for people--people open to adventure and to fantasy and to belief.

People who, like Valerie, may feel trapped and insignificant, but who still walk through the world dressed in red, eating everything up.

[The official site has a lot of lovely behind-the-scenes stuff, high-res desktop wallpapers, and other pretty things.]

* I thought this mystery was well done, though I'm a superbly gullible moviegoer and can't usually figure out the villain/perpetrator/wolf/etc anyway, even if s/he hits me in the face repeatedly.
** Note that I'm not trying to argue that this is a feminist movie, because "feminist" doesn't work that way. It isn't an adjective; it's a lens through which we can view things. Like movies. And I think that this version of Red Riding Hood is particularly ripe for feminist analysis, especially when compared to its source (but that would be some other post).
*** Not really a spoiler, but I'll make it tiny: I wanted the whole village to become werewolves and run around doing wolfy things together forever, but hey, there's always room for a sequel, if only in my head.

Friday, April 15, 2011

inspiration: "In an Artist's Studio" by Christina Rossetti

IN AN ARTIST'S STUDIO

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel – every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

-- Christina Rossetti (1856)
[via Wikisource here]

Monday, April 4, 2011

inspiration: "The Vagabonds" by E. Pauline Johnson

THE VAGABONDS

What saw you in your flight to-day,
Crows, awinging your homeward way?

Went you far in carrion quest,
Crows, that worry the sunless west?

Thieves and villains, you shameless things!
Black your record as black your wings.

Tell me, birds of the inky hue,
Plunderous rogues—to-day have you

Seen with mischievous, prying eyes
Lands where earlier suns arise?

Saw you a lazy beck between
Trees that shadow its breast in green,

Teased by obstinate stones that lie
Crossing the current tauntingly?

Fields abloom on the farther side
With purpling clover lying wide—

Saw you there as you circled by,
Vale-environed a cottage lie,

Girt about with emerald bands,
Nestling down in its meadow lands?

Saw you this on your thieving raids?
Speak—you rascally renegades!

Thieved you also away from me
Olden scenes that I long to see?

If, O! crows, you have flown since morn
Over the place where I was born,

Forget will I, how black you were
Since dawn, in feather and character;

Absolve will I, your vagrant band
Ere you enter your slumberland.

-- E. Pauline Johnson, in Flint and Feather (1912)
[via Wikisource here; read the whole work here]