Sunday, June 28, 2009

Back again

It was a dark and stormy night. The sound of footsteps shuffling across the kitchen floor could scarcely be heard above the swish of the rain. The click of the bathroom light was hardly heard above the monotonous whoosh of the wind. A thick silence filled the flat.

More waggling.
“AAARRRGHHH!! You’re back! You were gone!”
Bounce, bounce.
“Go! Leave! Begone!”
Bounce. Waggle. Bounce. Pause. „Nerozumím.” A slightly cynical bounce.
“I banished you! I made the typhoon winds of death with the floppy bottoms of my pyjama trousers at you and you scuttled away. Then I hoovered up your web. Several times. And mopped the floor to remove scent trails and spider germs. In case you use scent trails. You were gone!”
„Nerozumím.” Defiant bounce.
“What do you mean you don’t understand? Of course you understand. I will make the typhoon winds of death again. Understand this, you eight-legged freak!”
Wwwhhhhhffffff. Flap. Flap.
Bounce. Bounce. Snicker.
“Damn. Wrong pyjama bottoms. Can we talk about this?”
„Mluvte česky.”
“What do you mean, ‘Speak Czech’? Have you been talking to Mrs. Jana? You’re a spider. Spiders don’t get to be picky about language choice, especially when they invade my loo.”
„Mluvte česky.”
“No. I refuse. And stop with the Czech speech marks. It's annoying. Like your legs. Get out.”
„Mluvte česky. Or I will crawl on your pathetically exposed big toe.”
“AAARGGHH! No! Gerroff!”
“Now you’re being weird. Just because ballroom dancing is strangely popular here, and still an extracurricular activity pursued by many teenagers as part of a well-rounded education is no reason to be making laughing noises in a knowing dance-referenced way.”
„‘Ch’ is like loch. This is how Czechs laugh. Stupid foreigner.”
“I know that. I am trying to distract you while I reach for the loo brush. Stupid spider.”
„Co? Co že?”
Swish. Splat.
(slightly muffled by the wooden door lintel) „At last, my revenge is complete! This door corner is forever mine! Never again will you be able to blithely visit the toilet in the middle of the night, with carefree unshod feet! Know this, stupid toilet-brush-wielding speaker of inferior Czech! I Vill Be Back! Chachachachachá!!!”

Oh crap.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hunk mail

I found this letter while I was clearing out the recycling. Could have sworn I asked these guys to take me off their mailing list.

Dear Beautiful, Wonderful Ladies

Outside today the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the birds are singing. It’s a beautiful day, and one that we treasure, just like we treasure all of you. We treasure your beautiful souls and your beautiful womanly natures, just like we know you treasure our souls and our beautiful manly natures.

This treasuring of each other is especially important in these difficult times. The world is experiencing a global economic crisis. Times are hard for everyone, even those gifted with natural panther-like grace and hard-edged masculine lines.

And because we are deep, and our hearts are as big as our manly chests (they would be bigger, probably, except that because of biology our hearts have to be inside our chests), we feel. We feel with every sinewy fibre of our beings the feelings of others. This is called empathy, and it’s a beautiful, wonderful gift because it means we share your joys, we share your laughter, and we share your beautiful sparkling tears.

But this gift, like the six-foot bejewelled sword that Loynz wields as he strides manfully through the lush grass, has two edges. It can cut us, and when it does, we bleed.

We feel so deeply the deep pain and anguish of anyone who is not blessed with the personal resources we are blessed with. We are choked with unspoken, yet deeply-felt, emotion when we hear of beautiful, wonderful ladies forced to downgrade their habitual choice of personal grooming aids. We clench our fists with barely concealed rage at the thought that out there, there are ladies, some already sadly cursed with a taste for ill-fitting leisurewear, who must compromise themselves (but never their shining integrity) in order to finance their dry-cleaning bills.

Remember, dear beautiful wonderful ladies, WE CARE.

One of the deepest griefs we feel is that there are so few of us, and so very many of you. If we could, we would reach out and personally help every single one of you at this difficult time. But to do this, we would have to be many more than we are now. And that would make us less unique and special, which would mean that somehow, the magic would be gone. And that would be a great tragedy, because as Abz said only the other day, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” and our love is the greatest gift we can give to the world.

But it’s so hard for us because we know how much you need us at this difficult time. And because we love you all, and want to show you our love, we have decided to help by sharing with you knowledge from the immense store of wisdom we have learned over the years. Wisdom that will help you to weather the storms of life. And this way, with every step you take in this magical journey called life, you will think of us, and how much we love you, and this will make your life better, too, in strange and beautiful ways.

To begin our journey of knowledge, it seemed right, at this difficult time, to share with you some of the secret wisdom that we have learned over the years spent as millionaires, billionaires, magnates, tycoons and otherwise extremely wealthy individuals.

1. Acquiring start-up capital is difficult. A good option is to force your irresponsible (step)mother with the gambling problem that led to your current financial predicament to donate the jewels that she acquired in an ill-advised affaire with a French marquis.

2. When these turn out to be fake, acquire a run-down gambling hell in a high stakes card game and turn it into a fashionable venue by playing on its (and your) seedy reputation.

3. Alternatively you may choose to find your fortune in India or another exotic locale. Once acquired, it is acceptable to refrain from any mention of the exploitation of the local population as the basis of your wealth. “Trade” is nicely vague.

4. If you are a vampire, the fine print of your contract with the Lords of Hell contains a clause that requires you to open a Goth-themed nightclub or casino.

5. Do not worry. Your innate sense of style will ensure that it never becomes tacky or unfashionable. Black is always in.

6. It is also worthwhile spending some time trying to understand compound interest. But not all your time. Accountancy is not for those staring down the barrel of immortality.

7. Do not worry too much about reading books on management theory. Not only do they lack attractive covers, but they will have no bearing on your success. “Lean” is only ever relevant if it is associated with the words “whipcord” and refers to your physique.

8. Do not worry about a slightly shady background if it gives you an air of ruthlessness and danger. By now, however, you should be rich enough to refrain from stealing toilet rolls from motorway service stations unless it serves a higher justice.

9. Accents are sexy. And an excellent way to avoid awkward explanations.

10. All of this advice relates to heroes only. But it should help you dear beautiful ladies in your quest to find your own hero. It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune and a high-powered job must be concealing her desperate longing for babies and an alpha male beneath either her icy or adorably ditsy exterior and the excessive consumption of dessert. Check out the way her eyes shine with unshed tears at "baby panda bear" screensavers if you don't believe us.

Until next time, dear ladies, we send you all of our deepest, sincerest love…

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sitchuashun normal

Feh. Still have the blahs bookwise. Have been trawling the internets looking for things to add to my shopping list and mainly thinking, "Meh," at any fiction.

But in better news, it seems as if my long-awaited ebook reader may potentially arrive in the next few weeks in someone's suitcase (it's been sitting in its box on someone's hall table for the last 8 weeks, and I simply don't trust it in the post). Woohoo.

And better, yet, Tanya Gold was on most excellent form today in the Guardian. In my case it was the incessant demands for fish knives that drove me to a similar level of despair and rage that although banked, still burns. The fish knives and an £85 cotton bathmat. And this was over 4 years ago, when pounds were actually worth something. It's probably a £150 cotton bathmat by now. What in the hell would anyone want to do with an EIGHTY-FIVE POUND bathmat? Frame it?

I want to marry her, and then we can both get all the spoons.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

It’s like buses. Part 1: The bit about the book.

Nothing for aaaaages, and then four come along at once.

(A brief explanation: This was originally intended to be a single post, but rapidly veered into frighteningly long territory. So I’ve separated it into chunks, which hopefully make sense on their own, but are all part of a beautiful whole. For one thing, it gives me four posts out of one, and consequently a warm glow of satisfaction. Btw, I’m posting in reverse order so that it’s easier to read them in sequence, which is why they’re all appearing at once. Who knows? If this works, maybe next time, I’ll post sentence by sentence…)

So onto the book I just finished: Paul Lawrence’s The Sweet Smell of Decay, a whodunit set in Restoration London. Which does what it says on the tin. If the title doesn’t give enough of a hint, the first paragraph pretty much nails it for the casual browser.

"As I gazed upon her face a small black beetle emerged from the ruins of her right eye. It stood uncertainly upon the crest of her cheekbone as if suddenly reluctant to step out further. Though I looked upon the beetle as if it was something unutterably revolting – still I felt like we two had something in common. The butcher reached over, picked it up gently between his thumb and stubby forefinger then crushed it. I could hardly protest. He wiped its remains upon his shirt.”

In short, not for the squeamish. I could go on about imagery and metaphor, the plot and machinations uncovered by the narrator, but I don’t really feel like dissecting the book like this. For one thing, I don’t know if it’s robust enough to take it. Suffice it to say that the book doth wallow in the muckety muckmuck mire. Mud splashes, corpses are disinterred, people are killed horribly and putrefy even more horribly, rats eat unmentionably horrible things chopped off people, and everything rots.

Kind of reminiscent of Perfume. Although the latter is a much better book. But this one’s not bad – my biggest issue is that the human characters are a bit thin or self-consciously weird, (aka. “wyrd”) crude or twisted. The most well-rounded character, if you will, is the squalor.

ETA: sorry, blockquote went really screwy...

It's like buses. Part 2: Add another book...

...and then some more books

The Sweet Smell of Decay’s unbridled revelling in the sheer ickiness of 17th century life is interesting for me, since it makes two connections with other recent reading. Connection the first: innumerable romance-novels-with-history-scrubuffed-trimmed-and-in-possession-of-their-very-own-olde-worlde-hande-sanityzer-bretthe-ffreshyner-and-rustick-yet-effectivve-plumbingge.

And connection the second: Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing, by Katherine Ashenburg*, which I read a couple of months ago, and which also does what it says on the tin, and very entertainingly too.

There is a certain rather pungent side-branch of historical novels which takes the question, “But weren’t they quite dirty in those days?” and runs with it - mainly literature and crime/thrillers, probably because the theme provides a wealth of atmospheric tropes that suit these genres’ darker world-views.

By contrast, my experience of the majority of (modern) romantic fiction is that this particular seam of seaminess** is not one that is well-mined. There are generally three possible takes on the thorny issue of historical hygiene in romance novels.

Take the first:
The “If I don’t mention it, it’s because no one would have noticed it at the time” line that allows both writer and reader to gloss over all manner of historical sordidness.

Take the next:
It’s dirty, but over there, in that squalid tavern/dark alley/dockside slum where the heroine ventures (possibly disguised as a boy, possibly as a tavern wench, possibly as both in certain sub-sub-genres) to:
a) Track down the MacGuffin.
b) Create a Big Misunderstanding.
c) Stage a rescue (her own or some other worthy victim’s, possibly leading to b).
d) Kick off a subtly saucy scene intended to either 1) set the sensual suspense between h/h on simmer with a bit of playful badinage and body contact in low-cut and/or snug-fitting tops, or 2) lead to everyone all ending up back at the (remarkably clean) pirate’s lair for a spot of hide the yardarm in the yo-ho-ho. It all depends on what chapter and who’s publishing.
e) All of the above. Sometimes behaviour in Romanceland can be remarkably confusing.

Take the last:
The “If it’s a fantasy, I don’t want to be put off by my vague recall about all that authentick historical dirt and once-upon-an-icky-time stuff,” line. This usually leads to some convoluted explanation of why the heroine is defiantly battling the odds and surly retainers to have her daily hot bath, shave her legs, and squirt the rim of her chamberpot with bleach made from special herbs. Usually she’s a healer.

*A sidenote for anyone who enjoys those "divided by a common language" stories. In the News section of her website, Ashenburg notes that "'Clean', as 'The Dirt on Clean' is called in Britain, has just been released in paperback with a charming new cover of a flapper drying her fanny." *koff.*

Must confess that after reading this, I had to double-check the cover of my own copy, in case I'd missed something rather startling. If you're not aware of this particular bit of lexical divergence, let's just say that in my dialect of English, the word "fanny"*** is used (especially by children, or with a sort of childish undertone) to refer to a part of the body slightly further forward than the one Ashenburg means...

**apologies – couldn’t resist it

***cannot believe I've just written this word twice in a single post. I feel about 3 years old. teehee.

It's like buses. Part 3: A pondery bit...

...with some context, a list of books and a MEGA largely irrelevent, but quite interesting footnote

The thing is, I’m perpetually intrigued by what is justified in historical romance novels on the grounds of historical “authenticity” (eg. rape, abuse, swordsticks, Fabio in a Viking helmet) and what is extracted on grounds that it would put off the sensitive reader (eg. slavery, blatant racism, poor oral health, body hair). It’s not the removal of all ick. It’s selective historical sanitisation – and it’s not only in ye olde Romancelande that this takes place.

This isn’t a cry for more historical accuracy on the hygiene front in romance novels either. The way that grime can be fetishised in other genres is something I think is equally worth digging into. It’s another side of the phenomenon. But there’s not enough room to go into that here, and I wanted to write about this topic in relation to romance novels in particular.

It’s a truism that historical novels (or indeed almost any writing) reflect more about the time of writing than the time being written about. So in my view, claims of “historical authenticity” (or claims of a lack thereof) are often more of a figleaf than a valid line of argument. I’d argue that it’s more a question of, “Yes, this did or didn’t happen then, but I want to think about why this is included, but not that, and what does it say about us/our society now?”

Ashenburg discusses the modern obsession with hygiene: the way we erase all traces of our own bodily odour and try to smell “like an exotic fruit…or a cookie” (p.8) instead. She links this to a “confluence of reasons” (p.201) including: distrust of our bodies and the need to control them (p.283); the modern concern for privacy (p.282); and the connection of hygiene with morality** (p.190), civility and advancement (p.201).

(Just a bit more on theoretical background – can be skipped. In the context of historical novels, I'm also intrigued by some of the ideas brought up in studies of the relationship between colonialism and hygiene. There are quite a few recent books on this – the one that introduced me to the topic is Kristin Ross’ Fast Cars, Clean Bodies, but since it was published I’ve also come across a few others: Bashford’s Imperial Hygiene, Jennings’ Curing the Colonizers, and Anderson’s, Colonial Pathologies.)

The inherently optimistic outlook of modern romantic fiction (I'd say that most readers insist that a happy ending is a fundamental requirement of any book in this genre) means that they are often tagged as fantasies, which can be either a pejorative or a positive label depending on the position of the labeller. As fantasies, they are separated from real life and can therefore discard aspects of “real life” as required to meet the needs of the fantasy.

That said, I think this distance from reality is a mark of all writing. Writing is in part a selective process – a writer chooses to dispense with, include or exaggerate aspects of reality. Writing guides the reader’s imagination along a particular path, and to be most effective when dealing with the messiness of reality, it filters things out, just as our perception filters out much of the world around us so that our brains don’t explode. But I don't think it's just the writer in isolation doing all the choosing, all the time, either.

**Ashenburg also argues that one of the reasons for the odoriferousness that permeates European history was that in contrast to the Jewish and Muslim faiths, where sanitary laws are part of doctrine, the Christian faith has no such teaching (p.49-55).

So for medieval Christians, dirtiness was often seen as next to godliness since it meant that the dirty individual was a) above such trivial earthly matters as soap and water and prepared to suffer lice, itchiness and scabs for good of his or her immortal soul (p.58-63), and b) clearly not Jewish or Muslim (p.54, 69-72), whose sanitary laws were viewed with deep suspicion by the majority of medieval Christians (p.71-2, 103, 111).

This was also why the Inquisition took an interest in the bathing habits of any individual unfortunate enough to attract their attention. And yes, being “known to bathe” was enough to damn a person in their eyes. (p.111)

It's like buses. Part 4: A bit more pondering...

...but unfortunately, not very much concluding.

So I guess the question of hygiene in historical romance seems to come down to this messy intersection between a) empathy with the hero and heroine (h/h) which is usually seen as grounded in some level of identification with the characters, b) the conflict between the way that we view the past either in evolutionary terms or as a mirror, and c) the big pay-off of romance: the HEA. And the area of debate centres on the question of personal happiness.

After all, how can h/h be happy if they live in what seems like uncomfortable, unsanitary conditions? The argument goes: a modern reader (this means me) would find it harder to empathise, because they personally wouldn’t be comfortable in these conditions. And readers have to believe the HEA, or the satisfaction they get from the book is diminished.

So the h/h must face a clean and hygienic future for the HEA to be believed because:
  • Cleanliness = healthiness. Readers need to believe that h/h won’t be struck down by cholera or galloping typhus immediately after the book finishes, or the HEA doesn't pack enough punch.
  • Cleanliness = morality. H/H are good people. Disease, dirt and bad breath only happens to deserving villains or ex-partners (possibly tragically if its backstory, possibly because they are villains).
  • Cleanliness = civility, and in the modern world, personal cleanliness is a mark of personal status. These days, instead of finding more expensive ways to smell awful (Ashenburg’s book has some great stuff about this, btw), rich, cultured people don’t smell of anything unless they choose to.
  • Cleanliness = wealth. Wealthy, or even well-to-do people can afford to be clean, and wealth itself, while not guaranteeing happiness, probably helps – at least in the mind.
  • Cleanliness = comfort. Dirt isn’t glamorous, it’s itchy.
  • Cleanliness = neutral. Dirt is a distraction – if it’s mentioned, people think about it, so it distracts from the story unless it’s part of it.
And I could just leave it at that, and go away whistling songs from South Pacific except it doesn’t really deal with one question, and one thorny issue. The question is simply this: how do I know unless I've tried it? After all, I can accept all manner of grubbiness in other genres, so why not romance? And wouldn't a reaaally good writer be able to make it work?

The thorny issue is more worrying to me, though, and it seems to take me right back to my starting point. Although historical dirt only shows up in ye olde Romancelande in controlled conditions, if at all; all manner of other historickiness* is either selectively included in, or selectively removed from the landscape. And what does this say about readers/perceptions of readers? But this is probably a post (or six) for another day.

*thanks (probably should be apologies) to Stephen Colbert for the inspiration.

ETA: Hey, cool. I forgot I could do bullets.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

That spider? is gone.

While a better, nobler person would admit *to some feelings of guilt and concern over its homelessness, I am afraid that I am not that person. I am dancing the dance of a thousand empty toilet rolls. In bare feet.

That said, I should probably clarify that no spiders were harmed during the typing of this blog. In fact, the photo is not a crudely exploitational shot of the rather less audacious spider that previously nestled in the corner of my loo door. It is actually a (bad) picture of a 2-year-old stunt spider (this is mature and responsible in spider terms) of sound mind and limb who was paid above-union rates for its participation in this shoot.

But y'know, in the middle of the night, I think my spider got this big and webtastic. Really.

*ETA: "to" not "of". Aaarrrggghhh.