Thoughts: Heart of the Dragon, by Gena Showalter

Oh my goodness, where do I start?

Let’s start at the beginning. Once upon a time, a husband found two incredible-looking books in a free bookshelf and brought them home to his wife. One day, the wife picked one up and read it, hoping for some frothy, trashy* fun.

This is what she actually got.

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Thoughts: Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

I picked this one up because I read a review of a ballet production of it, and thought it sounded exactly like the sort of thing I’d wish I’d written. Is it? I’m not sure. It’s very of its time.

The premise of Lady Into Fox is that there’s a lady, and she turns into a fox in a freak miracle. It’s short, and written in a sort of reported speech fairytale style, but I wasn’t quite sure if it had any deeper meaning or moral, and if so, what it was. The writing style led me to think that there must be. And there was something, but it never quite came together for me. I always felt like there was something I was missing.

Once Sylvia Tebrick, née Fox, turns into a vixen, it’s the job of her husband to hide her condition and try to maintain their happy married life as far as that’s possible (not far at all). We only get Mr Tebrick’s perspective, and that at a distance, as the story is purported to be a true one, and the author’s meticulous research is what’s enabling us to read it in its complete form. Still, just after her transformation, Sylvia is still recognisably herself – tame, loving and well-mannered. Mr Tebrick’s immediate fear is dogs (all of whom in the story’s environs are trained to kill foxes on sight) and discovery by other people, so his first actions, once they’re home, are to shoot their two dogs and let all the house staff go.

For a couple of days, they manage (though Mr Tebrick is distraught at his wife’s transformation, and she does her very best to cheer him up). But the transformation continues. Sylvia becomes more and more a fox, refusing clothes, eating on the floor, displaying alarming behaviour around ducks and baring her teeth at her long-suffering husband. She also wants to be free, and starts trying to escape.

I couldn’t quite get a handle on it – is it about Sylvia’s need for freedom, is it about something private (the story was dedicated to Garnett’s ex-lover), or is it just the story of a woman who was turned into a fox one day? Threads kept showing underneath the story but I couldn’t make them into a full picture. There was still plenty to enjoy. The conflict between humanity and wildness, the increasing absurdity of the husband’s inability to let go of his fox-wife, even when she has a litter of fox cubs, the way that human manners start to look silly when you try to impose them on what is frankly a fox with no human thoughts and only a recognition of one human face to tie her to the world of humans.

It’s when he allows her to live wild and accepts that he has no hold on her that they fall into another companionable period, though infinitely stranger than before, but allowing her to be wild means accepting the cruelties of that world.

It’s a strange, spare little story, but I can see how it would make a fascinating, weird ballet, and maybe one day I’ll get the chance to see it.

What is the top-heaviest country?

This post is based on an interesting Twitter thread about country populations! In particular, this pair of tweets from Josh Fruhlinger:

It’s an interesting thing – how top-heavy is a country or federation? In other words, how much of the population is concentrated in its largest constituents?

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Thoughts: The Girl With All The Gifts, by M. R. Carey

Tl;dr, it is very good. It made waves in 2014 for a reason.

Bonus tip: the film is also very good! Seeing it is the reason I put the book on my list, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.

A very quick disclaimer: the casting in the film took some different directions from the book (swapped the races of Melanie and Miss Justineau, basically) and I kept imagining the actresses while reading, though it messes with the description. It didn’t bother me – I’m rubbish at imagining things anyway – but I know it does bother some people if there’s a mismatch, so be aware. The casting is great though, and I think I preferred it to the book character descriptions?

Anyway, because I saw the film first, I don’t know how much of the book’s premise is spoilers, so be aware of that too. I don’t think it’s very spoilery, because basically as soon as you open it the slow reveal begins, but I thought I’d say anyway, in case you didn’t want to know more. If you don’t, then I’ll just say that the characters are strong and the writing is quite lovely and I inhaled this book.

Spoilers follow.

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A short Star Trek thing

Normally I’d just complain about this on Facebook or wherever, but since it’s also a spoiler for the season finale of Star Trek Discovery, I decided to put it here on the blog. Spoilers after the jump!

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Play: Human of the Year

This is a play we wrote for a Play in a Day event. It’s not exactly as performed (the director and actors did a good job of cutting it down and neatening it up a bit), but not bad for a night’s work.

Human of the Year (PDF)

Thoughts: Promise of Shadows, by Justina Ireland

This book found its way onto my TBR list because a friend found it on Goodreads and the summary sounded like amazing, silly fun to fill the impending Kitty Norville-shaped hole in my life. I want to say it sounded “trashy”, but before I do I want to make it clear that to me, “trashy” means fun, easy to read, dramatic, audaciously pleasure-seeking (which I don’t mean to sound like an act of radical whateverism, just that I envy people who can write without embarrassment about angst and badassery and fun, a concept I find perfectly embodied in the phrase “super-hot Brazilian were-jaguar“). I hold good trashy novels in very high esteem. They take a lot of skill to write well, and I hate that “trashy” contains the word “trash” and that there’s no other good word that means the same.

Anyway, all this is moot because Promise of Shadows wasn’t very good.

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Short Story: The Judgement of Dr Solomon, Neurologist

Does this count as a story? A work of some kind of fiction anyway.

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Thoughts: Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner

This is not the first Booker Prizewinner I’ve read, but I haven’t read that many so it still gets a mention. It is the first book I’ve read where the author had to apologise for its winning a prize though! I’ve never read Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and I’m sure it’s great, but come on, guys. Being angry at a book because some people chose it over a different book is not polite. And it’s… really unfortunate that the book that won is about female experiences and the book everyone wanted to win is a war book. It just looks unfortunate. And as a total outsider to this fight that happened before I was born, I just have to lay that out there. It would be dishonest not to.

Anyway, Hotel du Lac was really good.

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The perfect symmetry of Steamed Hams

If you want to see The Simpsons at its best, you could do worse than “Twenty-Two Short Films About Springfield”. This episode peels away from the Simpson family to show short vignettes from the lives of the series’ many side characters.

One of the best skits from that episode (titled Skinner & The Superintendent, but better known as Steamed Hams– if you haven’t seen it, it’s only a couple of minutes long) follows Bart’s headteacher, Seymour Skinner, inviting Superintendent Chalmers over for dinner. Chalmers is Skinner’s superior: he manages the local school district and often arrives to inspect Springfield Elementary at the worst possible times.

In other words, this is a classic sitcom plot – trying to impress the boss with a fancy meal that all goes horribly wrong. The show winks to this by giving the skit a cheesy sitcom style theme song, complete with an opening sequence.

Ski-i-inner, with his crazy explanations
The superintendent’s gonna need his medication
When he hears Skinner’s lame exaggerations
There’ll be trouble in town tonight

This works as a joke, but for viewers who aren’t familiar with Chalmers (a slightly obscure character, since he usuaully only appears once or twice per season) it doubles as a set-up. Something will go wrong, and Skinner will lie to cover it up, and in the process make everything worse.

In spite of being formulaic, Steamed Hams has gone down as a classic bit. It’s now a meme to mash up the scene in different ways – to turn it into guitar music, to remove all Skinner’s lies, to run it through a trippy vocoder, to replace the words with bad translations, to edit it like the movie Memento, and to reverse the order of the lines so the scene runs forward but the dialogue runs backwards.

This last one really intrigued me, because it reveals something incredible about this scene: its symmetry. Steamed Hams is constructed with the same kind of attentiveness to symmetry that you might expect of Greek architecture or Renaissance art. Don’t believe me? Watch.

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