Aug 24, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 6

Here are more of my notes from the Whitman class. Bear with me, Just one week left after this! This week's theme was elegy and memorial, and we looked at Whitman's texts that he wrote after the assassination of President Lincoln.

Whitman heard the news of the death while staying at his mother's house in Washington. The lilacs were in bloom early that year, and the scent of the lilacs fused with the sorrow he felt at the news, and so came into being "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd," Whitman's elegy to Lincoln. He never names Lincoln, though, making the poem feel universal. Our professors also pointed out that the poem is composed of fragments, which reflects the world fallen to pieces. Whitman also uses a lot of participles, (-ing-words, the verbs that indicate ongoing action), maybe to indicate that the world goes on. Spring in itself is a hopeful time: everything is born again. Every year, spring comes. Does it bring us hope even in tragedy? Another interesting thing Professor Folsom pointed out was how Whitman uses the sprig of lilac, a broken fragment in itself, in a poem of fragments. That sprig is spring without the letter "n" is no accident.

We also read Whitman's newspaper piece on the assassination, which is powerful in a different way.

All this reading on loss can be wearying, so this little poem, so hopeful, is a welcome interlude:

I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ

I HEARD you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last
Sunday morn I pass'd the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walk'd the woods at dusk, I
heard your long-stretch'd sighs, up above, so
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I
heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
…Heart of my love!—you too I heard, murmuring low,
through one of the wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little
bells last night under my ear.
           -- Walt Whitman, Drum-taps.

A beautiful way to end the lesson.

This week's assignment was to write a piece on a trauma or conflict that encompasses two or three central sensations.

Aug 22, 2016

Writerly Progress Report

Time for another progress report: what I did this summer, the writing edition. 

I wrote a story in Finnish for the Gothic Fiction anthology and another in English, a bonkers science fiction adventure story that's so out there that I'm not sure I'll ever submit it anywhere. I'll send it to Critters, though. I've got another story outlined and a few more that are in the idea stage. There's another Finnish anthology coming up that's all about crossed genres, so I'll probably try to get something done for that one. Deadline's the end of October. It might mean shoving the English stories on a back burner for a while, which is too bad. 

I also edited the Finnish story I tried to write for the hard science fiction anthology and sent it to the Portti competition. Because, let's face it, it's not hard science fiction. To thine own self be true, I guess. Speaking of competitions, one of my stories made the second round of the Nova writing competition, yay! The winners will be announced in October, but just getting this far shows progress, so I'm pretty happy however it turns out.

I'm also sending out a few English stories, and waiting to hear about those.

I sold some drabbles to SpeckLit, and all of those came out in July. 

On the self-improvement front, I completed K. M. Weiland's course on character arcs and I'm actively participating in the MOOC from University of Iowa on writing about death and disaster. I also read a few writing books and learned about deep point of view. And I managed to read a few more books on my Science Fiction Classics reading list. The Classics list is stalling, because Proust. The first few hundred pages of Sodom and Gomorrah feel like being at a dull dinner party where you don't know anyone and just sit there, listening to mean people gossip about strangers.

I'm also beta-reading a fellow Critter's novel, which is very interesting. I'm learning a lot from doing it, and getting to read a cool story, too. I'm trying to do one critique per week in addition to that, just to keep my ratio up, in case I want to submit something before I finish the book. (Because you get the credit at the end for RFDRs, "Request For Dedicated Readers.") Oh, and I'm also still in the Finnish critique group, of course.

That's all for now. More later. This writing thing's a marathon, not a race, as Chuck Wendig is fond of pointing out.  

Aug 21, 2016

2016 Hugo Award Winners

. . . have been announced! Check them out here.

I haven't read The Fifth Season, but I'll have to check it out. Naomi Kritzer's "Cat Pictures Please" won best short story. It's really fun. You can read it on the Clarkesworld site if you haven't yet.

Aug 19, 2016

Svartå Manor

I visited Svartå manor (Mustion linna in Finnish) a few weeks ago. It's about a one-and-a-half hour drive from Turku, and even closer to Helsinki. The manor was one of the grandest stately homes in Finland, but is now open to the public as a museum. Built between 1783 and 1792, its architecture is a mix of Rococo and Neoclassical styles, while the interior is mostly Gustavian. It's surrounded by beautiful gardens complete with fake ruins and a tiny castle built when the romantic Neo-Gothic craze swept over Europe.      

You can take a tour of the manor and hear all the fascinating anecdotes about the illuminaries that stayed there over the years, including Tzars Alexander I and Alexander II of Russia, King Gustav III of Sweden, and Sibelius.

The real glory days of Svartå manor happened in the early 1900s during the reign of Hjalmar Linder, a business magnate who was the richest man in Finland in his time. He held extravagant balls, took his friends on luxurious hunting trips to Russia, and owned the second car in Finland, having outbid the King of Belgium for it.  In addition to this, he was a compassionate and modern employer, instituting an eight hour workday, setting up a system to pay for the workers' medical costs, and letting the workers stay at housing he built near the ironworks for free. 

But then came World War I. Linder escaped to Sweden for the duration of the Finnish Civil War in 1918. When he returned, he found his property intact, but many of his workers had been taken to prison camps for the Reds, and their families begged him to help. He visited the camps and was appalled at the conditions and the mass executions, so he wrote a piece to a major newspaper, the Hufvudstadsbladet, in protest. He wrote it in good faith, thinking he'd be taken seriously and that he could help end the madness, but it turned out differently. He started receiving death threats and his friends abandoned him. In the end he was forced to sell his property and go into voluntary exile. He tried to continue his business ventures abroad, but lost his great fortune over three years, because the world is a cruel place for do-gooders and idealists. Ruined and penniless, he took his own life in Marseilles in 1921. 

As with all old houses, Svartå manor also has ghost stories associated with it. Some say Hjalmar Linder haunts his old house, and there's two ghostly ladies there too, the White Lady and the Grey Lady. The White Lady is though to be a woman who stayed at Svartå manor for a time. She had some kind of nervous disorder and had to be locked into a small room on the second floor at times. One of these times she had some kind of stroke and was found dead in the room, hence the haunting. Some even claim that King Gustav III haunts the manor. 

I highly recommend the tour, because the guide was very knowledgeable and a good entertainer, too.

There's even a tragic love affair associated with Svartå manor:  Finnish military leader and statesman Carl Gustav Mannerheim fell in love with Hjalmar Linder's half-sister Kitty, who turned him down"because he wasn't exciting enough." Mannerheim was also twenty years her senior, so it might have had something to do with that...  He did send her a picture of himself as a young man, and you can see it at the manor. Kitty did value Mannerheim's friendship a lot, in spite of what happened. Apparently she took flowers to his grave every year. Kitty's story doesn't end well, though. She never married and lost her fortune over the years. She died in Helsinki, a bitter old woman living off the kindness of friends. 

Here are some of the fake ruins from the garden and the tiny faux-medieval castle.

Nowadays the manor is once again owned by the Linder family, and they've set up a hotel and an award-winning restaurant, Linnankrouvi (Slottskrogen in Swedish), there. 

The rooms are located in historical buildings. We sprang for the suite, Merlin's Tower. (C'mon, how could you pass up the opportunity to sleep in Merlin's tower?)

As nice as the room was, I recommend getting one of the normal rooms. I don't know if it was the proximity to the river or if the building's suffered water damage over the years, but there was a noticeable smell of rot in the room. 

Even if you don't stay at the hotel, do to try the restaurant. Trust me, you need to. It's very popular, so pre-booking is advised. The food is amazing, and the space is open to the garden, so it's very atmospheric. 

That's the cocktail I had. 

Look at that dessert! Just beautiful. And the best part was that those staying at the hotel got to have breakfast at the restaurant. One of the best breakfasts I've ever had. 

On the way back we stopped at Fiskars village for some Finnish design and chocolate cake. It's less than a half hour from Svartå Manor, and they host lots of interesting events there. Even if you don't like shopping that much, PetriS Chocolate Room makes fantastic salted caramel chocolates to take home with you.

Aug 17, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 5

This week's themes were silence and absence. The poems and writings we discussed this week had to do with the end of the war and where to go from there.

In "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice" Whitman describes men from the warring sides coming together. Whitman also advocated love between men. According to Professor Ed Folsom's introduction, he felt that women were allowed to express affection towards each other, but boys were taught to compete with each other and physical expressions of affection, as well as homosexual love, were taboo. When he saw the wounded soldiers express deep affection towards each other, he wanted to believe that affection would survive the war and help re-unite the nation.

 Whitman wrote many letters for soldiers who were wounded or otherwise incapable of writing to their families. Many times the soldier in question was dead by the time the family got the letter. In  "Come Up from the Fields Father" Whitman incorporated that shock of receiving a letter from a loved one written in someone else's hand into the poem. The setting of a farm in Ohio at harvest-time makes the poem feel even more poignant.

Whitman also wrote about PTSD long before the disorder was recognised. In "The Veteran's Vision" he describes a peaceful night, the former soldier lying in bed next to his wife with their infant asleep nearby and how the sounds and visions of battle, unwelcome, fill the veteran's mind. Also here the contrast is startling, and Professor Folsom pointed out how the events of ordinary life and war come together, like the child crawling and soldiers crawling, for example. Another "writer trick" to note: here, again, Whitman reverses two words, making the war long over into the war over long, overlong, still haunting the veteran.

We also studied a letter Whitman wrote to his mother in the final year of the war, and you can see how exhausted and heartbroken he is. He talks about a young soldier who arrived with hundreds more, shivering under rain-soaked blankets, and died before he could tell anyone who he was. That unknown soldier represents so many others, dying alone and their fate unknown to their families. It feels like Whitman is about to crack under the weight of it all.

The last poem we studied, "Pioneers, O Pioneers" looks into the future. After the war ended, the energy of the nation had to be directed towards some common goal, and colonising the West was it. The idea feels a bit cringe-worthy now, because we know what it led to, but if you look at it from the point of view of a nation tired of war, it must have felt like a call to adventure, a new beginning, something worth believing in.

For our assignment we wrote about the "phantom limb" left  behind after trauma or traumas, how they can still haunt us for years after the fact.

Aug 15, 2016

Reading the Classics: The Odyssey by Homer


I finally finished reading The Odyssey, and I loved it. I picked the Fitzgerald translation because I had heard good things about it, but this particular edition doesn't have an introduction or any notes included, so if you're new to the Greeks, another edition might help provide more context. That said, I don't think you need to read a bunch of analyses to enjoy Odysseus' adventures. (That's Ulysses to those that prefer the Latin name). 

If Iliad is an Ancient Greek action movie, The Odyssey is an adventure flick. It's surprisingly captivating, especially the first half that tells of Odysseus' journey home. I might not be entirely unbiased in this, because I grew up with these stories; I had an edition that retold the story for children, and I also loved "Tales of Sinbad the Sailor" from One Thousand and One Nights, which were influenced by Homer's works. The Lotus Eaters and the Cyclops feel quite familiar, for instance.

I didn't love the part in Ithaca as much. Does anybody else think that massacring the suitors, even those begging for mercy, and the women of the household who had slept with them was a bit overkill? The rules of hospitality (and the suitors' abusing of them) is explored a lot in the book, so maybe that's why? And the constant testing of Telemachus, Penelope, and even Laertes, his father? I get that Odysseus is a cautious man, but that just seems cruel. Okay, testing is also a major theme, as you can see even from the cover of the book. That's Odysseus' bow, the one that none of the suitors are strong enough to string and shoot, and in the end Odysseus, in disguise, strings it and shoots the arrow through the hoops as indicated, then goes on a rampage, unleashing his fury on the suitors. So the story is also about vengeance. But is this justice, or only revenge? 

Telemachus almost manages to string the bow after a few tries, but desists after Odysseus gives him a warning look. Does this mean that even if Odysseus hadn't come home, Telemachus could have thrown the suitors out eventually? Maybe he wasn't there yet, but would have been, soon? The idea that this proves that he'll never be the man his father is feels quite depressing. 

Loyalty is another important theme. Penelope is the main example, but there's also the old swineherd  Eumaeus. The bit about Penelope feels unsettling, because I get the feeling Odysseus would kill her without remorse if she didn't pass the tests. And there's also the old double standard at work here. For women, sleeping around is a deadly offence, while Odysseus jumps in the sack with practically any nymph/temptress he happens to come across on his journey home and doesn't even feel bad about it.  

That said, the storytelling is surprisingly modern: a lot of the story is told in flashbacks. The description is vibrant and full of detail, and you can practically see what's happening. I also liked the way Agamemnon's story is used to mirror Odysseus'. Agamemnon fought in the Trojan War just like Odysseus, but when he came home he was murdered by his deceitful wife Clytemnestra and her lover. So a dark mirror, then. 

All in all, a fantastic read. Even if you think you know all about The Odyssey from pop culture references, it's very different to actually read it. 

Aug 13, 2016

Suicide Squad: As Bad as the Reviews Say?

This summer has been frustrating, movie-wise. Every time I wanted to see something, it got crushing reviews and I decided to wait for the next one. I'd been looking forwards to Suicide Squad for months, and I liked the trailers. Then the reviews started coming in.

Oh boy. Not another one.

My first reaction was disbelief: how could anyone screw up such a great premise? In the end I decided to see the movie anyway, because I really wanted to see Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. She didn't disappoint: Harley was the best thing about the movie for me. I also liked Will Smith as Deadshot. I know people haven't loved Leto's Joker, but he actually didn't bother me. But yeah, the movie, while not the unwatchable train wreck some reviews would have you believe, was a mess.

I actually liked the origin stories, but they felt all too brief; there just wasn't enough movie to give them the time they deserved. Each of them could have been a movie of its own. On a related note,  the movie had way too many characters. It would have been much better if they had dropped the boring ones (rope-guy, boomerang-guy, and Katana come to mind) and focused on five or six main characters. Another problem was the villain. Just a cardboard-cutout Evil Temptress out to destroy the world, just because. I also hated her alter ego, the spineless archeologist who mostly just had crying fits and waited for Big Strong Soldierboy to save her. And the plot! So by-the-numbers, like they didn't put any thought into it. They completely wasted Joker as a character, none of the character motivations felt real, most of the time we had no idea about character goals or what was at stake. Waller as a character feels inconsistent, and even her plan to assemble the suicide squad isn't really explained. Why did she decide to go for the criminals when there are heroes available? And where were Batman and Wonder Woman and the Flash while the Enchantress was doing her thing?

This could have been a great movie, if they had given it half a chance. So much potential, wasted.

My verdict? If you really like Harley, maybe check this movie out, but otherwise just go watch Deadpool again.

What would I like to see next?  What about a buddy movie where Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy paint the town red? Okay, Deadshot can come; I liked Deadshot. Maybe they could flip around that scene where everyone is ogling Harley while she's changing? For the record, I didn't have a problem with Harley's costume. Let her wear glitter hot pants if she wants, I think she totally would, but maybe subvert audience expectations once in a while?