So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh

There are voices that are a part of your life.  One of mine was Pete Seeger.

My parents were old school liberals, shading over into the radical at certain times.  My marched on picket lines, and spoke out against McCarthy and the Red Scare.  My Dad was anti-nuke, even when it hampered his career, and helped shut down the White Citizens Council in Sacramento.

I was raised with Pogo comics, liberal politics, and Pete Seeger music.  His children’s albums were the backdrop of being a kid.  I rediscovered his work with the Weavers when I got to college.  I cheered when he played President Obama’s first inaugeral.

I learned to love stories from those songs — those long, rich, passionate songs telling stories not just of young love, but of men and women around the world, living and dying, winning and losing.  This was my first exposure to poetry, and it came to the sound of 5 string banjo and 12 string guitar, and it came with the idea that there should be justice in the world, and where there wasn’t, it was our job to change that.

It was tough to pick a recording to end this with.  There are so many.  But I’ve chosen the one that got him blacklisted.  Okay, one of the ones that got him blacklisted.

So long, Pete.  Truly, it’s been good to know yuh.

Pete Seeger

Sarah Zettel and the Big Book — Part Four



Okay?  Okay.

So, I took a break from reading The Big Book and read a smaller book also on the 6ft tall TBR Pile of Doom — Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.  Overall, very good.  Emotionally gripping.  Wasn’t sure about it at first, the emo at the opening felt a bit…obvious.  But it all settled down.

And then I found out that Revolution and The Big Book both pull a similar trick.  Both jump from modern times to the past.  Both have a modern person looking back at the life of a doomed historical person.  Both portray the past very, very well, and weave the tension between past and present very, very well.

Then both insert a person from the present into the past — in the case of The Big Book via a play written by one of the modern protagonists, and in Revolution by an actual (or was it all a dream?) act of time travel, via the time honored means of the blow to the head.

In both cases, all that emotional tension drops out of the narrative like air out of a balloon.  Both authors have done such a terrific job of creating the separate worlds, the separate problems and the separate POVs the change just feels cheap.  Gimmicky.  It’s a narrative layer I not only don’t need, I actively don’t want, because what I’ve got has been so lovely.

It’s a lesson about the importance of simplicity, even within complexity.  Note to Self:  Sometimes it’s worth it not to take that extra step, and flow, familiarity and follow through can be more important and more effective than that final twist.

And no more time travel than strictly necessary.

The Frozen Zone

snowflakeI am a sucker for Disney Princess movies.  I am also a feminist.  These two things tend to clash.  Kind of a lot.

So, I really wasn’t surprised to get into a heated discussion with a feminist friend about Frozen.

I’m not going to reiterate the argument here, and I’m not going to defend the necessity of a love story remaining at the heart of a Princess movie (Brave was a Pixar movie, and doesn’t count as full-on Disney Princess, IMHO).  What I am going to point out is something interesting about Frozen and Disney which gives me great hope for pop culture in the US.

There is nothing, NOTHING in a Disney movie that is not considered 100% Safe.  If it’s in there, it must be as non-controversial as possible.  It’s gone through the kind of wringers and checks that OSHA only wishes they could muster.  This stuff is mega-super, appeal to lowest common demoninator, sparkly spectacle, family safe.

Then, take a look at two things Frozen does.  There’s a girl in there with superpowers.  She’s born with them.  They’re hers.  She wasn’t cursed into them.  She wasn’t given them by abusive males, or evil females who wished to get her into mischief and harm.  It’s just part of who she is, and she has to learn to deal with it  It has been judged okay by the guardians of cultural safety that for a girl to just be powerful…just because.  This is kind of new.

The second thing to notice here is obvious, but it’s that the sisters save each other.  Yes, there’s a male assist and eventual love, which I’m good with.  I like a love story.  But in the end, the sisters save each other.  There’s some plot flaws in there that I won’t go into, but the big thing is that when it comes down to brass tacks, it’s the girls who drive the action and the main plot, from conflict to resolution is driven by the relationship between the sisters, not the relationship between Hero and Heroine.

This has not only been deemed safe for a blockbuster to do, it’s proven to be highly profitable.  That’s kind of new too.  We haven’t seen that since the 1930s when folks like Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis dominated Hollywood.

That also is really, really interesting.

Sarah Zettel and The Big Book — Part Three


As you might expect, HUNGER’S BRIDES, otherwise known as The Big Book, is a complicated book.  Wow, is it complicated.

It’s a time-jumping novel.  Not time travel, but it divides its storyline between the story of a modern girl, mostly told from the point of view of her professor who was a self-excusing womanizer, and who was sleeping with her because she was pretty and didn’t think much of it (yeah, he’s a peach of a guy), and never bothered to understand that she had issues.  Okay, not issues.  She had subscriptions — abuse leading to anorexia and other self-destructive behaviors.  The other part of the story of Sor Juana Inez Delacruz, who was a scholar and nun in the time of Imperial Mexico and ultimately falls afoul of the Inquisition.

It’s an ambitious trick, and when you’re doing it in 1300 pages, it’s pretty natural that some bits would succeed better than others.  I want to talk about one of the places that really succeeds.  The depiction of friendship.

Female friendship is something a lot of authors seem to grapple with.  In SF, we’ve gotten used to seeing a woman paling around with the guys particularly if she’s a military officer, a kick-ass heroine of some sort, or a prostitute.  But she’s on her own.  She gets to be friends with the guys and fall in love with them, but friends with other women?  Nope.  Not there.

In The Big Book, there are lots of friendships for Sor Juana.  Her life is not ideal.  She’s tightly cloistered, but within the cloisters, she has a tight circle of friends, and Anderson portrays them very believably.  They’re genuine, complicated, have good days and bad days, little secrets, little confidences, big blow ups, small ones, attempts to help that are sometimes clumsy, sometimes successful and always human.  Not afraid of this strange world, not afraid to show these people as fully human.

It made me so happy.  It’s a simple thing, but I can’t help thinking that the portrayal of friendship is startlingly absent from a lot of genre fiction, especially for women.  It’s one of the reasons I love the Thor movies.  Dr. Jane Whose-last-name-I-never-Remember has a friend, one who is roughly her age and is also a woman.  They talk, they tease, they help each other out.  Stop a second and do a count.  What other genre movies have you recently seen where there’s a scene between women friends?  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  I’ve got the most recent Hunger Games, and even there it’s sketchy, and Frozen, which is between sisters.  How about you?

Interestingly, the miserable, abused, self-destructive modern woman has no women friends, not currently.  She meets up with an old friend during the course of the book but does not let herself stay with that woman.  She doesn’t make any new female friends.

For all of us, gender aside, friendship is a huge part of our world.  We get so caught up in talking about sexual relationships, we forget about the complexities, the intricacies, the vitality and absolute importance of friendship.  We need to remember more, inside the genre and out of it.

Starting Over, Again

I’m starting over, again.

This is nothing new.  The life of the writer is about starting over.  Fiinsh one project, close it out, hopefully send it out, and start the next.  If you are not living this cycle, as a writer, you are doing something wrong.

That doesn’t mean it gets easier.

This time I’m starting over on the last book of a series — Palace of Spies, Book 3.  So far, I’ve got a lot of characters, a time line, a deradline and no plot.  At all.  None.  Zip.

I’m not panicking, just a little frustrated.  I know that whatever plot I may have thought I had, as I write, it will change, kind of a lot.  Okay, you can take the kind of out of that sentence.  It will change a lot.  But I do need to have at least some kind of line of sight so I can start stringing words together.

But rest assured, Dear Reader, Peggy and Friends will be back.  I’ve left the door open, and the coffee is waiting.  I’m quite sure there is nothing to be alarmed about.  After all, what could possibly have happened to them?

Oh, wait…this is Peggy we’re talking about, right?

Time to get started over…

Sarah Zettel and the Big Book — Part Two

bookshelves    I belong to the Subculture of the Book.  In my culture, books are not just containers for words, they are prizes, trophies, and they come with bragging rights.  I have had whole conversations with friends about how many books we own, how many new bookshelves we’ve had to buy; the problem of trying to squeeze one more bookshelf into a small house or apartment; how many individual volumes we own and whether they’re double stacked on those shelves.  We bemoan the difficulties of book storage and management in that particular way that is really kind of closer to bragging than actual regret.  And we always buy more books.  The size of your To Be Read pile is a big part of the Subculture of the Book.
Ebooks have not changed any of this.  That may be because I hang out with fellow geezers, but there you have it.
The Big Book is emblamatic of my culture.  I did buy it because I was curious about the contents.  But I also bought it simply because it was big and beautiful and I wanted it.  Some people do this with shoes or cars.  I do it with books.  And clothes.  But mostly books.
Lately, though, I’ve begun to question the subculture of the Book, and I hate to say, it’s in part because of the Big Book.  It’s turned out to be a good book.  There are parts of it that are really brilliant.  But like I said in my previous post, this Big Book sat on my shelf for years, and it had plenty of company.  That shelf?  Let me show it to you.  It’s six feet tall, four broad and it’s stuffed with books I haven’t read.  And I keep buying more and piling them in.  I mean there’s a TBR pile and there’s hoarding.  If books were cats, the neighbors would have called the humane society by now.
A few years ago, I tried be systematic about things.  I was going to start at the top left of the shelf and read every book in order.  I mean, I bought them, right?  I bought them because I wanted to read them, not just own them right?  What is the point of a book you don’t read?
That effort, I confess failed miserably.  So, there it sat, big and beautiful and completely unread, with all those other beautiful, unread books.
Books are a good thing.  You can never have too many, right?  This is practically the motto of the subculture of the Book.  And yet…and I ask this seriously…what is the point of having more than you can read?
Has counting coup and the luxury of ownership become more important to me than the stories?

Sarah Zettel and The Big Book — Part One

books and pen graphic    I’m reading a Big Book.  Seriously.  This thing is big.  Douglas-Adams-space-metaphor-level big.  Over 1300 pages long.
It’s called Hunger’s Brides and it’s by a Canadian scholar/author named Paul Anderson.  In part, it’s about a scholar nun in 17th century Mexico named Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (,  who was a famous poet and thinker and who I’d never heard of.  She also, incidently, fell afoul of the Inquisition.  Wrapped around this is a modern story featuring a couple of literary tropes: the Middle Aged Man who is discovering he’s missed the point of his own life, and the tragic, sexually abused girl.  More about them later.
The Big Book has actually been sitting on my shelf for a long time.  I admit, it came home with me under somewhat shameful circumstances.  I got it on a vulture run.
My town used to have a bookstore in my town called Shaman Drum.  Shaman drum was kind of arty, and more than a bit highbrow.  Great poetry section, lots of “literary” novels, and a lot of obscure and scholarly history books I’d never see anywhere else.  This was mostly why I went there.  I’d get a new project going and I’d always drop in at Shaman drum to see what they had on the relevant area of science, history or politics.
This was where I first saw The Big Book.  It was hard to miss.  It had a lovely cover, all black and terracotta, and took up as much shelf space as 3 regular books.  Plus, it had a little staff recommendation card underneath it, attesting to the fact it was not just any old Big Book but a Good Big Book.  I’m pretty sure I remember picking it up at the time, mostly to marvel that such things were still being published.
Then came the Millenium and all that followed, and like a lot of bookstores, Shaman Drum closed.  With the closing came the sale, and I went, with mixed feelings as I do to such sales.  I want the books, but hate the fact that I’m buying so many because they’re cheap because the store is closing.  I hate the feeling of not just robbing a corpse, but a friend’s corpse.
Well, there I was, trying to sort out which books a) were the most interesting and b) I was least likely to stumble across elsewhere, and there it was — The Big Book.  I could not resist.  It was a lovely book, with a lovely cover, and, in case you haven’t guessed by now, it fed into my fascination with books as artifact.  This one was dramatic.  Big Book came home with the rest of the stack, and went onto the 6 ft. tall Ikea bookcase that is my personal TBR pile.  There it sat, for…years.

Yet More from the Yellow Brick Road

Follow the Yellow Brick RoadSo, there I was sitting in the theater waiting for Frozen to start (loved it, BTW), and what do I see?  Disney’s doing an Oz sequel.  Based, of course, on the world of the movie, not the books.

I can tell you this right now, it’s not going to work.  It never works.  Occasionally, you get an alternate take on Oz that runs away with it (like Wicked) or that is kind of interesting from a genre stand point (A Barnstormer in Oz), but the sequels never hold up.  In all the years “they” have been trying to do sequels to the movie, not one of them has ever even come close to success.  They all flop and the box office or in the ratings.

I even know why.

To talk about it, I’m going to have to do something difficult for me and set aside the books.  A vanishingly small number of people have read any of the books, even Wonderful Wizard, never mind any of the sequels.  This is not me judging, it just is.  For most people Oz is the movie musical with Judy Garland and friends.  And that is the primary reason none of the sequels work.

Because of all the remarkable specticles Hollywood, even The Mighty Mouse can produce, they cannot reproduce the look and feel of that movie.  Even if they could, it would probably not update well.  That movie was very much a thing of its time, from the songs to the sets.

And then there’s the ending.  It was a dream.  We all know it was a dream.  The scene where Dorothy wakes up again is one of the most famous in the movie.  It’s been parodied a thousand times.  This is not, BTW, how it ends in the book.  In the book, Oz is real and Dorothy was gone for months, much to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s distress.  When she goes back, it’s via different routes and for different reasons, but she can go back because it was always a real place.

But in the movie, for reasons I’ve never heard explained, it was turned into a dream.  This pissed me off as a fantasy-loving kid, and pissed me off later as a feminist for a whole different set of reasons.  But it’s also made making a sequel really, really difficult, because any sequel’s got to explain that famous, emotionally effective scene away, which is a tough start.  Then it’s got to recreate the same level of emotional connection as people have with the original, without any of the working material that made the original great — the performances, the songs, the totally unexamined and wonderful weirdness of those Munchkins.

An alternate take or alternate world sideways telling of Oz doesn’t have these hurdles.  They can just tap into the wonder, or the weirdness (and Oz, as I have mentioned elsewhere is PLENTY weird) and run with it, they don’t have to recreate it, or better it.

Oz is our national fairy tale.  I’ve never been sure how it got to be that way, but it is.  I’m fascinated by the rewriting and the different ways the pattern has been woven into other stories, but sequels…not so much.

Good luck folks, and good-night from the Yellow Brick Road.

Forever Off to See the Wizard

Oz CoverI am an Oz geek.  I am not ashamed to admit it.  I quite literally grew up on the Oz books.  I learned to read out of The Wizard of Oz.  I had a babysitter, the teenage daughter of family friends, who had a bunch of the Baum sequels and whenever she came over to sit, or we went to their house to visit, those books were open.  When she went away to college, she gave them to me, and I still have them.  I’m now reading them to my son.
And let me tell you, these are some truly weird books.  You get past THE WIZARD OF OZ and you find out Piers Anthony’s Xanth has got nothing on Oz.  There’s a magnificently strange scene in THE TINWOODMAN OF OZ where Nick Chopper, the Tin Woodsman, discovers his old head, in a cupboard, and has an argument with it.  Or there’s the magician who makes a glass cat, but doesn’t want it to have the to repeat Tin Woodsman’s problem with not having a heart.  So, he puts in a ruby heart.  The problem is, because the heart is made of stone, the cat is hard-hearted.
But it’s the story in the first book that everybody knows.  The tale of Dorothy and her three companions that we all love and that gets re-told and re-worked and is so firmly a part of the cultural landscape.
I’ve tried to work this out every so often, but I’ve got to say I’ve never quite managed it to my own satisfaction.  I mean, I love the stories because I love them.  Because they’re neat.  Because they’re weird.  Because Dorothy is unflappable without being cloying (all props to Judy Garland, but she didn’t get across the sheer nerve of the Dorothy in the books).  But clearly I’m not the only one who remains captivated by the story.
I mean there’s the obvious reason that they’re out of copyright and so anybody can do anything with them, but that wasn’t true for the 20th century when most of the great adaptations were made.  So it’s got to be more than just found material.
The movie’s got a lot to do with it, of course.  Although, it didn’t at first.  It never made back its $3 million budget and was considered a flop (!!) until it was rescued by TV (ain’t that just the tail wagging the dog?), and we all came to know it with Judy Garland’s breathless, dreamy Dorothy, Margaret Hamilton’s amazing Wicked Witch of the West, not to mention Burt Lahr’s Brooklyn-accented Cowardly Lion and those wonderful songs by E.Y. Harburg.
SIDE NOTE: I think it’s because of that movie that the sequels never seem to quite work.  The road trip finished and the books shuffle the chacacters around, but no one has ever managed to approach the emotional connection the movie creates.
But it’s the story itself that does it.  In a lot of ways, Oz is the first iteration of the road trip.  Seriously.  The Yellow Brick road is the most famous thoroughfare in American letters.  And on it we have a group of buddies each of whom is searching for something (all together now:  “A heart, a home, a brain, da noive!”) to make them complete.  They are not princes and princesses, they are working folk who have all had hard luck somehow; a poor farm girl, an unsuccessful scarecrow, a cursed lumberjack (if you’ve read the book you know he’s made of tin because the Wicked Witch of the East put a spell on his axe and he cut himself to pieces), and a cowardly lion.  They are all looking to a Wonderful Wizard to save them from their troubles, but in the end, they all save themselves.
Which is what is really remarkable about the story, because it is reconstructing and deconstructing the traditional fairy tale at the same time.  The tales the Brothers Grimm collected there are endless variations on the clever peasant boy or girl heading out to find something they need (you can actually measure the age of a fair tale this way.  In the oldest stories, they get food, in the newest they get royalty), and finding help on the way.  But in the traditional stories, what is needed is genuine, as is the king or wizard who can ultimately bestow it.  In Oz, the characters have what they need inside them, and the wizard is a con man.  In fact, in the book anyway, the Emerald City itself is a fake.  All the people have to wear green glasses, supposedly so they’re not blinded by the brilliance of it, but actually so that it will look green.
It’s a story of independence as well as friendship, personal triumph as well as a successful quest.
There’s also the fact that what they’re after is not riches, or royalty or even a decent lunch.  One wants to be smarter than he is, one wants to be able to love, one wants to be brave and one just wants to go home.  Except for Dorothy, the quests are internal.  The three companions all want to be better people, but not like Pinnochio who had to change his whole nature and then get a fairy to decide to make him real.  Lion, Scarecrow and Tinman are happy enough in their own skins.  None of them considers himself unreal in any way.  They just have parts of themselves they wish were better.  The belief in the possibility of self-improvement and getting along on the your own strengths is what makes this story uniquely American.  There’s no miricle of birth, no fairy godmother, no divine intervention.  It’s just people doing their best.
What’s amazing about Oz is that it really is an incredibly gentle work, and Baum did that deliberately.  He was reacting to the horrible Victorian-era moral fables like Shock-Headed Peter (in which boys who suck their thumbs have them cut off) and The New Mother (in which disobedient girls are abandoned by their mother to the care of a monster), but it is notably lacking in moralizing or attempts to be Improving or punishments for evil.  Even the death of the witches is accomplished pretty quickly.  Nobody is rolled downhill in a barrel stuck full of nails (as in the Brother’s Grimm), nobody dies and goes to Heaven to get their happy ending (as in Hans Christian Anderson). That whole speech Dorothy gives at the end of the movie about how she’s learned to never look for paradise beyond her own back yard?  That’s Hollywood adding an air of hard-nosed Protestanism that never shows up in the book.   Baum just has Dorothy hold out bravely until the end, when she really makes it home from the real journey she has been on.  Oh, she’s a good kid, but no one lectures, no one moralizes, and God does not enter into the question at all.  The story was written for fun to entertain children and as such it holds up beautifully.
And that’s the other reason it’s lasted.  Because Baum declined to give it a specific moral, it can be read and re-read by each generation with fresh eyes.  Like Shakespere (yes, I said like Shakespere and I meant it), the story is simple enough that everyone can see a new way to tell it, a new setting to place in it.  Oz is a big country and leaves plenty of room for the imagnination.