Saturday, December 31, 2011

Writers are Readers

--By Stella Atrium

Joni Mitchell claimed once that she didn't listen to music of her peers (or competitors) because she didn't want the melodies or rhymes to impact her style.  Music is in the air, and composers can imitate without realizing the source.Joni

I knew a singer-songwriter who performed twice a month at a small club.  One week he sounded like Steve Goodman, and the next time he sounded like Kris Kristofferson, and later his voice had the quality of Fred Holstein.  I saw him perform again about a year later, and the young songwriter had found a method of phrasing that suited him, really and amalgam of all his heroes.

By emulating those who came before, he met audience expectations and began to step out on his own. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.

Writers are always experimenting, and a turn of phrase borrowed from another writer shows that he reads, at least. Except fantasy writers borrow magic from other stories, and borrow powers for vampires from other stories; even slang in urban fantasy is often borrowed from other writers.

I had a writer friend who refused to read the Harry Potter series because she didn't want her own work to appear derivative.  This concern is real — I can tell after devouring a fantasy series from a single author if she read Shakespeare or not.

HamletThe word skulking is from Hamlet, for example.  The young prince and his buddies skulked around the rampart until the king's ghost appeared.

We learn to address the world by using models of success and following lessons learned by elders shared as cautionary tales. We feel engaged with the group when we identify with players or singers or actors. Rick Perry wants to be the Tim Tebow of the debates.

We know we have succeeded when the boss enters a meeting wearing your same tie. 

Ray Bradbury claimed he wrote well when he fed his soul with good reading. His imagination was alive and ready for making new characters and new dialogue. Perhaps the operative word here is GOOD reading.  It's not enough to read; what we read counts for quality writing, just like museum art or music that isn't rap.

We write what we know. The first science fiction stories grew from the experiences of engineers who were veterans of WWII and had seen the horrors people can do. Remember GI Joe comic books? Remember Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut? GI Joe

So it's fine to capture words and situations from reading and re-purpose and remediate (my word of the day, he, he). It's also fine to research and dig deeper to find your truth spoken in your voice that you delineated by comparison to all those other voices, like a soloist in a choir.

Just don't write any more vampire stories, 'kay?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Left to Tell: A Review with Partial Answers

by Stella Atrium 12/28/11

Did you ever sit with a big question for a good long time? Maybe you found the easy answer, or the glib answer, or the partial answer from an outsider. But the truth about motivation and outcomes still doesn't fit.

petrifiedI have puzzled over the big questions often, a pleasant way to spend the quiet time.  Like, why does the Great Plains have no trees? The soil is deep and fertile, made verdant by centuries of buffalo dung deposits in the gazillions. So why are the Great Plains not called the Great Forest?

I actually found an answer for that question that sits well with me. A forest was burned away when the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs crashed into the Gulf of Mexico off the Yucatan.  There's a petrified forest, in fact, in Arizona with tree trunks that were made into rock by the event. Then the grazing animals, eating all the seedlings, rose in great numbers before the trees could overtake the acreage.

One puzzle piece of my world fits snugly into place.

The cyclic massacres of the Tutzis and Hutus in Rwanda was another big question that came around in quiet moments. How could neighbors who were cousins indulge in widespread massacres every 12-18 years? What was the motivation? What were their explanations for the outcomes?

This is a heavy topic, not light banter for the dinner party. I could just ignore the question of relative motivations. Or I could explore the grievous actions and utilize some underlying truth to provide motivations for characters in my novels. The issue is relevant in many countries just now.

CollapseI read different partial answers that fit the rhetorical stance of the writer or organization more than the participants. I read much later the neo-Malthusian chapter by Jared Diamond in Collapse.  His argument called for more trees and fewer babies, and the relative responsibilities of developed countries.  But the example illustrates his articulated themes, rather than some open-ended investigation of inductive reasoning.

But what about the participants in the Rwandan massacres?  A GoodReads friend suggested that I read Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza in which she describes her experience as a Tutsi hiding in a Hutu's bathroom with six other women. To my surprise, this was a book of Catholicism and the power of faith, except the proofs of faith were thin. 

Immaculee claims a Hutu killer turned away when he saw her face, I suppose like the visage of Moses could bring conviction in the spirit.  She claims that God helped her onto a path of compassion and forgiveness so she could get past urges of revenge. The author was remarkable indeed, but what about the other Rwandans who participated, and will participate again in a decade or so?

LefttoTellThe author claims that her prayers covered her friends so the killers didn't attack the defenseless group while she hurried toward them with French peace-keepers.  Except this scene happened late in the four-month-long massacre when passion was burned out and outside soldiers were armed with guns, not machetes.

I enjoyed the writer's descriptions, and I thanked God more than once for my easy lifestyle. Her statement of faith seemed true but too glossy in print form.  I'm certain Immaculee Ilibagiza is an inspiring motivational speaker, and I admire her work with orphans and raising international awareness through the UN.

One woman's answer for how she survived the nightmare doesn't speak to how we, the human race, can indulge this horror or how we prevent future massacres among neighbors and cousins.

Unfortunately, I'm still seeking that big answer for my big question.
It's Like a Caucus: Struggles with Self-Publish Marketing

by Stella Atrium

When the Iowa caucuses roll around every four years, voters are subjected to complaints about retail politics, how candidates must visit every county and shake hands in living rooms, backyards, and coffee shops while they endure litmus tests about narrative, purity and electability.  And this is BEFORE voters review the candidates platform on his website or position statement on various issues.

I know how the candidates feel.

I found some easy comparisons with marketing for the self-publisher. Retail marketing, we'll call it. The various author websites where authors gather to promote indie books, for example, are similar to the early debates where candidates are allowed to hold up a hand indicating positions on topic as defined by the liberal press. The only visitors to these sites are other authors checking their own progress, just like the only viewers of the early debates are other commentators who have the next debate on a different network.debate

Some candidates have been working at reaching presidential campaign level for 10 years, (after serving in house or senate or governorships or charity groundwork), and invested a fortune of family money and donor money. And that's before the opening bell. Writers also have invested "blood and treasure" in the book or series (along with university work, screenplays, ghostwriting, jingle writing) long before joining Twitter.

What's another comparisons? Soliciting reviews are like making promises for future connections so the candidate can gain a public endorsement, and sometimes takes as many visits to the endorser's home for dinner.

buttonThe writer's giveaway is like campaign headquarters where hats and pins and banners are stacked in a corner waiting for the volunteers to embrace the novel and spread word-of-mouth good will.

The first blog tour where the writer engages a real time chat or printed interview with the site's manager are similar to the grip-and-grin first meeting with potential supporters and fundraisers.

Expanding beyond bloggers in one's genre to begin selling to your own university or book club or alma mater is like moving from Iowa to New Hampshire for the second round of primaries. Can the candidate build a ground game to perform in a different arena?

Developing a YouTube video to start a second buzz once the book is released is like those TV commercials that tout the candidate's family and long record of service, and just as expensive.

And the results are sometimes just as screwy. 

The weighted bestseller list that floats the list-maker's favorite book type to the top is like Ron Paul who is winning in early states, but cannot gain the respect of the liberal media who claim he cannot win, so why interview him?PerryPaul

A book with a few enthusiastic readers on GoodReads gains a bump in ratings and to-read lists until other readers discover the grammar and diction are so poor as to work against the book's good ideas.

It's possible to push this analogy too far...  But in my genre Neil Gaiman is the Mitt Romney (we like him, kinda) and Steven King is the Newt Gingrich (full of big ideas the unravel in the plotline).

Okay, I'll stop now.  What comparisons did I neglect that you can see?

Monday, December 26, 2011

There's Always Horses

by Stella Atrium

Did you ever notice in fantasy stories, no matter how extreme the otherworld appears, there's always horses?

In many fantasy stories there's usually castles and magic and mean women, and a cook who used to be a woman warrior.  But, no matter what the wild animals or domesticated animals look like, horses are everywhere. sandworm

In Dune there were no horses, but the hero learned to grab joyrides on the sand worms.  That was unique.

In Avatar the horses had six legs, but they were obviously horses, and were not nearly so interesting as the banshees.  Maybe the needed augmentation helped with carrying the oversized blue people.

apehorseIn Planet of the Apes, the apes that were soldiers rode horses. The apes had evolved, but not the horses. That was explained in the 2001 rendition with Mark Walberg that spoke to apes as test subjects in the lab where horses were spared.

In Narnia, the horses could talk, but so could all the other animals. The horse the oldest brother rode was a unicorn but did no fencing with this blade. Some of the fighters were centaurs — or men with horse parts below the waist.  None of the centaurs were women, though.  I noticed that. centaur

In Alice (the most recent movie with Johnny Depp), the bad guy's horse could talk.  The white queen's horse was just a prop, though, and I think she rode side-saddle.  How antiquated is that? 

queen horseWhat other exceptions can you name of fantasy stories where the writer thought about changing the looks or abilities of the ever-present horse? 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Seven Christmas Things I'm Surprised I Don't Like: My Grinch List

by Stella Atrium 12/20/11

In the spirit of writing a blog as a list (the newest route to securing blog traffic), I thought I would write out my Grinch list.  There's a plethora of these lists circulating, so please view mine with a grain of salt.fuzzy lights

1)  Articles Written as Lists:  Too obvious to explain.

2)  Andy Williams Christmas Specials: When I was a kid (I'm giving away my age here), we waited all day for the hour of the Andy Williams Show with the in-jokes and set decorations and his colored voice that everybody recognized.  The Osmond Brothers were introduced on that show. Now a mock-up of William's voice is used for Target ads.  The old hour-long episodes are faded and jaded, looking sadder than "Lawrence Welks" or "Sing Along with Mitch" from a decade before. 

old lights3)  Christmas Blow-out Giveaway on Twitter:  Think about lead time, folks!  Twitter is for last minute planners, I know, but a Christmas list is not.  Any woman who plans for a large family knows the gift packages were wrapped ten days ago.  She's now in the stage of polishing silver and making fruitcake before the real cooking begins.  She may not return to Twitter until time to return gifts starting on Monday.

4) Politically Correct Stance against Saying Merry Christmas:  Deal with it, and may God bless...

5) Warnings about a Hard Chicago Winter: Supposedly, the hardest winter in twenty years is coming, touted with images from last year's blizzard just for good measure, when it's 44 degrees outside. This is why everybody's so dissatisfied; the doom and gloom of the news broadcasts.  We had one hard freeze and no snow. The grass is still green and making buds. Let's enjoy the moment.  starlights

6) Over-cheerful Helpers at the UPS Store wearing Santa Hats: Don't you just want to slap them? They're celebrating the slow death of the US Postal Office so they can charge three times as much for the same services. 

7) Dry, Smelly Christmas Trees; The Most Grinch Dislike of all:  At least the men no longer chain smoke in the same room, because I make them go outside. Next year the men can decorate a tree outside, and maybe light the gas grill and cook their own holiday meal.  Just my luck, though, it will snow in Chicago in December 2012.

lightsMerry Christmas, all!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Night Circus: A Review of Sorts

12/16/11 by Stella Atrium

The opening of "Night Circus" promises an experience similar to "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury, but delivers smoke and mirrors instead.  I found a long series of vignettes where the reader must guess at the hidden action behind the few gestures in each tableau.Night Circus

***Spoiler Alert***

There's no protagonist to follow. The only real person is Bailey (Get it? Bailey and circus?)  Bailey is the touchstone as much as a fire or a tree. 

Time stretches out reminiscent of "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus", except there's no eternal struggle between good and evil, and the fate of society doesn't ride on the outcome. 

My final reaction is sadness.  So much talent was resident with the characters with magic, but they could think only to play a game of one-upmanship.  The weight of decadence, exemplified by the contortionist, was more like the society of vampires that Louis finds in Europe in Ann Rice's "Interview with a Vampire."

Lovely writing, though, if the reader has a taste for sorting through old tintypes where the viewer must guess the meaning behind the many pained expressions of ancestors. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ella Sykes: Why no Bio-Pic?

Stella Atrium 12/12/11

Why am I surprised that on the same day I stumbled across two women who are ignored for developing bio-pics about their adventures? 

Sykes crowdElla Sykes traveled widely with her brother, Sir Percy Sykes, on his diplomatic missions in central Asia. She was the first western woman known to have ridden from the Caspian Sea to India, and published five books on the topic. 

Ella Sykes paid two visits to Persia, spending nearly three years there in all. The first took place in October 1894, when Percy Sykes invited her to accompany him on his trip to the districts of Kerman and Baluchistan, where he was being sent to establish British consulates. She spent two years in the interior of Persia and was one of the first European women to visit these parts. Ella also traveled with her brother on his subsequent missions along the Persian Gulf, visiting the major coastal settlements on the way, and spent the winter of 1896-97 with him in Tehran before returning to England at the end of February 1897. She paid her second visit to Iran some ten years later when she stayed with her brother in Mashad.Percy Sykes

Ella shared her brother's interest in and affection for Iran and its people. This is evident in her three books about the country. In, Through Persia on a side-saddle (1898),she vividly describes her first visit, her long horseback travels and life in Kerman where she was probably the first European woman ever seen. The book received favorable reviews as "a very readable narrative" (The Times, p. 7) The Story Book of the Shah (1901), intended for young readers, recounts some of the legends in the Shah-nama. The book is well illustrated and has decorated chapter headings by her sister Ethel. Persia and its People (1910), was written after Ella's visit to Mashad and is a useful, though dated, introduction to the country, with chapters on its history, government, religion, antiquities, flora and fauna, Mashad, etc. Subsequently, she published several articles and lectures including "Persian family life" in the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society for 1914, where she had been a founder member since 1905 and was twice elected to its council, in 1916 and 1921.

In 1911, wishing to discover what opportunities there might be in Canada for Britain's "surplus" of educated women, she worked there as a home-help for six months. In the spring of 1915, she again accompanied her brother, this time to Chinese Turkestan where for six months he was in charge of the British Consulate-General in Kashgar. Ella did not marry or have children and towards the end of her life gave much time to volunteer work with girls, primarily as honorary secretary of the Girls' Friendly Society in South Kensington. She died at her home in London on 23 March 1939.


Sykes PersiaThrough Persia on a Side-Saddle is a notable travelogue of the first recorded land journey of a western woman from the Caspian Sea to India. With a keen eye toward the lives of women she encountered on her way, Sykes wrote a detailed account of an adventure that no other woman had experienced. The freshness of her observations comes through in her fluid and empathetic style. Starting her observations with the preparations in London, Sykes takes the reader on a lavishly descriptive journey of a world that no longer exists. Tracing her route to Tehran, she offers a full disclosure of her experiences in the capital of Persian. From there the reader is taken along to India and back to Tehran, and eventually, London. Giving a woman's perspective on an ancient center civilization, this volume proudly joins the Gorgias Historic Travels in the Cradle of Civilization series.

Ella Constance Sykes (d. 1939) was a world traveler and the first female member of the Geographical Society. She was also a member of the Central Asian Society and served as secretary to the Royal Asiatic Society.
Mildred Cable: Why no Bio-Pic?

Stella Atrium 12/12/11

And here's another adventurer who was overlooked for a bio-pic because she was a woman -- actually three women who explored China and the Gobi Desert for 20 years and wrote extensively about what they learned there as missionaries. Cable

Midred Cable, Eva French and Francesca French worked together as  missionaries with an inspiring story largely related in Cable's book "The Gobi Desert".

From an early age Mildred wanted to be a missionary in India. However in 1902 she went to China . Eva French was already there, she had joined the China Inland Mission before the Boxer rising of 1900 in which many Christians were killed. Her sister, Francesca joined them later on.

The three women worked in China for nearly twenty years, setting up schools and a rehabilitation centre for opium abusers. But they began to feel the need to take the Gospel to new areas where the missionaries had not been to.

In 1923 the three women went to Kanchow, traveling on the Silk Road and evangelizing as they went. There they trained Christians and traveled throughout the region holding tent meetings. But they knew that their destination would be the Gobi desert, a most inhospitable place with few inhabitants who were scattered throughout the area.

Cable and friendsIn 1926 they returned to England and their story caught the public imagination. Less than two years later they returned to the Gobi desert and stayed until they were forced to leave in 1936 during a time of political uprising. They had survived in a hostile environment and successfully proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region.

The three women returned to England after 36 years in China and worked for the British and Foreign Bible society for the rest of their lives.


Learn more by following a group of today's adventurers who are undertaking a similar journey.  Maji Shan

Threads in the Sand

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Anticipating the January 2012 launch of SufferStone, Book 1 of the Dolvia Saga, author Stella Atrium sat down with Marc Roster, a Chicago radio personality from the public access channel. SufferStone

Marc Roster: So, you have an interesting premise here; space travel and women living under the veil.

Stella Atrium: Over the decades, sci-fi fans have seen many cultures depicted in stories about offworld adventures. But I have not seen an alien culture where women struggle against the burka.

Marc: Are the female characters also Muslim?

Stella: Desert garb with flowing robes and headgear pre-dates the birth of Mohammad. In the story, the sisters of Arim live on a savannah with a long dry season.

Marc: But the story is meant to reflect issues of global women's rights?

Stella: The cultures for the four tribes are unique to the story with their own languages, along with standards of dress, local animals, gestures of power for the men.

Marc: Of the four sisters, Kyle Le is the youngest, but she's the leader?

Stella: Kyle Le is troubled with the gift of second sight, like flashes of insight for events in the near future. She's an orphan, and her sisters clings to the land her father owned. They have no status in community, only the service of her gift to a tribal leader.

Marc: So Kyle Le takes work at the mill where she meets the story's hero Brian Miller. They fall in love and live happily ever after?

Stella: Not likely. Brian Miller can only run the mill because he doesn't abuse native women. The differences between their cultures are too great.

Marc: In the story's plot, what is the purpose of the Brittany Mill?

Stella: The savannah on Dolvia has what we call a Third World economy. Corporations from Earth have come adventuring through the wormhole to take advantage of the mineral wealth and the cheap labor market. But the tribes are protective, and their women are mostly illiterate. Brittany Mill is where these disparate groups begin to mingle.

Marc: That premise sounds like what happens in many countries here on Earth.

Stella: The dichotomy is delicious. Inside the fantasy genre, I try to present women who need to solve real problems like having no voice in community, or no right to work; no access to capital to start a business. No reinforcement for talent.

My intent was to pry open the archetypes of alien women in sci-fi who are, shall we say, sexually available to the story's hero. You know the types — warrior, witch, street urchin, unavailable princess who sneaks around, armless mermaid. Let's present a few female characters who drive the story and solve problems using the tools at hand.

Marc: You mentioned unique animals. Any dragons?

Stella: (chuckle) No dragons; no fairies. One sister named Terry befriends a wild ketiwhelp, which is similar to an oversized fox. She's later martyred in prison and a tribal myth about her is told in chants.

Marc: So what are the elements of fantasy in the story?

Stella: The savannah is being settled, unevenly, by offworlders who seek fortunes by mining the mineral wealth. They have a network for supply lines through the worm hole to Earth, and introduce futuristic gadgets to indigenous cultures, changing the balance.

Marc: What kind of gadgets?

Stella: Brian Miller communicates offworld using an EAM, or extra atmosphere modem. He shows Kyle Le how to access the transport's library where they call up an image of Dolvia, a blue and green planet with atmosphere and clouds. Kyle Le is very impressed with seeing the whole face of Dolvia.

Marc: So, the story is about culture shock?

Stella: For several cultures, yes. The reader also meets indentured colonists and military personnel stationed on the orbiting transport. Some characters are from a nearby planet and compete for work with the corporations to get ahead. They even adopt English over their own languages and shorten their names for advancement.

Marc: You mean, like people changed their names when they came to America through Ellis Island?

Stella: Examples from our history are illustrative. The pressure to fit in is universal, such as Jews in Spain in the fourteenth century who pretended to practice Catholicism. Or tribal people in South Africa who lived under Western names. Power structures exist everywhere, and the people from the subservient culture use similar strategies to get by and put food on the table.

Marc: So, what's the story's outcome.? Do Kyle Le and Brian Miller hook up?

Stella: Kyle Le is promised for the warrior Cyrus, even though she doesn't like the idea. She's motivated to resist the future planned for her by others. That's why she's open to new ideas like working for wages, and traveling offworld with soldiers.

Marc: Well, we certainly look forward to reading reviews for this unique story. Our time is up now, but I enjoyed the talk.

Stella: Thank you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Frame the Debate: a year of mud slinging

by Stella Atrium

Pres. Obama has a jobs plan, a student loan plan, a new mortgage plan, a loan modification plan (but no guest worker plan).  In the true spirit of community organizing, the president brings a targeted proposal to each voting group to solve local issues.Obama

In the meantime, no federal budget has been proposed by the ruling party in the Senate for THREE YEARS. Instead taxpayers get continuing resolutions to open the paymaster's door, and debt ceiling hikes to the $4 billion A DAY increase on the debt.

The voting public can look forward to 12 more months of empty plans that won't move in congress until election day comes, after which we get more of the same. What inspired plan to solve issues will Pres. Obama proposed in his second term that he did not already try?  Is he saving the tough choices for when he feels secure in his job?  Or is he unable to address tough choices, relying on "hope" the the Gang of Six is effective, and "great hope" that the Supercommittee can face the fire.

At a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Milford NH, Candidate Mitt Romney said Pres. Obama's stewardship has created a "'Where's Waldo?' economy," referring to the children's books in which the challenge is to hunt for a small, hard-to-find man on a crowded page. In Romney's analogy, the jobs are Waldo.

RomneyHe also accused Obama of fostering "class warfare" that Romney said demonized groups of people unfairly. "I've been really disappointed -- and, in some respects, a little frightened -- by the president's rhetoric -- this class warfare, trying to find someone to blame," Romney said. (Bloomberg Businessweek 10/11/11)

Each party tries to frame the debate for what issues will drive the election season.  However, just like the last election season, none of the talk includes reality.

Reality has overtaken the European Union, and we chuckle at them for austerity measures, rigid job markets, hat-in-hand begging for better interest rates.  They are facing a "lost decade" similar to what Japan knew when their housing market crashed in the late 1980s. The USA is next, you know.

In the meantime, we play this trivia game to frame the debate. trivia

Elected officials in Washington ignore the need to restructure Social Security, Medicare, a health care mandate, SEC corruption that allowed crooks on Wall Street to dirty the play pen, and more. 

I'm not much for demonstrations (since Kent State in 1968 — go figure), and I'm not a liberal.  But I can understand the anger that prompted the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

OWSThe Hope and Change framework was inspiring, but those who had a warm feeling down their legs on election night in 2008 are feeling a pinch in their wallets now.

The framework of "He's worse than me" to argue issues without addressing Obama's record as president is already in place.  Meanwhile, Rome is burning...

I know I sound cynical today. Get ready for the year of mud slinging.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells 
Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s new book investigates how a poor black tobacco farmer had a groundbreaking impact on modern medicine
By Sarah Zielinski,, January 22, 2010

Henrietta Lacks was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died.

Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

My note:  Here's a story that begs for a bio-pic.  Why another sports movie when these stories beg to be told? 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blogging Changes Writing

11/22/11 by Stella Atrium

I just opened a Twitter account @SAtrium and poked around for what's trending.  TwitterJennifer Hudson attended the music award wearing a short dress made of clinging silver, so her name was trending for an hour or so...

Now I can think only in 140 characters, or less.  

A student asked how she should go about publishing her poetry and early journals. I bit my lip to hold back a giggle.  Join the world; start a blog.

The most popular blogs are about how to write in blogs. 

BogA student recommended blogging because she has no fear online
In her comfort zone she can express ideas about gender preferences, hating her brother, wanting to leave home, and finding a simpatico follower.

Confessions are common on blogs, right after birth announcements.   

We're born, we confess, we follow, we get mentioned.


Popular blogs have made-up personalities.  Many famous bloggers don't blog at all; rather, staff members do all the writing.

A narrative builds when others join into the ideas (read: #OWS), even if the narrative is not productive like the senate Gang of Six or the Super Committee.  In fact, the less truth, the better the popularity. lightbulb

Can you say "Hope and Change"?

The public discourse is no longer about engagement, but entrenchment. I will hold my position and solicit followers. I will not give an inch, no matter the impact on my children or grandchildren.

Criticism is the work of the day.  Opinion trumps the facts in the news.  Don't bother me with the facts; I know what I know.  

I cannot form a sentence that's more than twelve words. blog key

Just ran across a blog titled "How to Write Your Life". I remember when Madonna wanted to live on—camera.  What purpose to actions when the camera was not there? She was ahead of her time.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Appeal of Thelma & Louise; a buddy movie about two women on the run

Stella Atrium 11.11.11

The 20th anniversary of Thelma & Louise was in February 2011.
T&L car
Critics claimed the movie directed by Ridley Scott broke stereotypes and allowed female characters to step out of a corseted past into liberated action.  Never mind the movie presents women acting like men would act.  Never mind that Thelma robs a store only after she receives instruction from a drifter.

Once again, the characters we love don't solve problems the way women solve them, but rather ape the actions of the men. Where are their mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, best friends, daughters?

T&L gunsMovies about women must appeal to men, even when the male characters are secondary, as with a sympathetic policeman played by Harvey Keitel and ex-boyfriend played by Michael Madsen. The movie audience was mostly men, and they liked the idea of women on a lark with 2% body fat and oversized handguns.  We still have the standard scenes for car chases, gun violence, fiery explosions, and a hero's ending.  The twist is that women get to blow up stuff.

Except are they liberated? Or... are they just acting like a guy would act in similar situation?  Maybe a woman would find other ways to hide by changing her looks and blending in, or entering a brothel where the police never investigate.

In Thelma & Louise a struggling waitress and repressed housewife take off one day while the husband is fishing.  They stop to cat-around at a dance hall, and Thelma (Geena Davis) is pressured by a drunken cowboy who Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots with her Texas-purchased gun. Adventures on the run after the feminist statement include picking up a drifter, scaring a truck driver, packing a cop into his car trunk, calling home to bring down the police, and sprinting toward the Mexican border.

The 1974 movie Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges) depicted drifters in a similar socio-economic strata. ClintJeff
Lightfoot is beaten by bad guys who pursue them, and the tension between Lightfoot and Thunderbolt is tentative friendship built on a common need to escape jeopardy.  They end badly, too, when Lightfoot dies of injuries from the beating.  We expect less of this movie, though, and treasure it for the performances.

What social wrong was righted in Thelma & Louise?  Besides the eye-candy, what did we learn about ourselves? I'm reminded of the old adage that "she acted like a man because she was treated like a woman".

The scenes are well played, especially when Thelma says, "Something broke inside me," but Thelma & Louise is ultimately unsatisfying.

over cliffI object mostly to the ending when the pair drive over a cliff rather than return to society and face jail time.

Many have claimed this ending shows that there's no place in real life for rogue women; except Thelma and Louise aren't acting like women.  The pair is acting like they think the men would act, all the way to driving off into the sunset.  

Young women today mention Thelma & Louise as a shining example of liberated acts, of improvising, of getting a little of her own back.  I despair for our young girls who have few role models and must fit behavior into unnatural patterns to find acceptance among peers who believe that women should act like the guys.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Don Quixote at the Joffrey Ballet
by Stella Atrium


Attending ballet in Chicago is all about going to the Auditorium at Roosevelt University, often claimed in our reviews as America's most beautiful theater. Nestled among the buildings for Roosevelt, Columbia College, and DePaul University, the Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan masterpiece is a banquet of arches and ornamentation.lobby

The jeweled setting puts the patron in a mood for great art, and the Joffrey Ballet seldom disappoints. 

Yesterday we attended the matinee for Don Quixote where the aging Spanish knight doesn't dance.  He is shown on his deathbed three times, so jumping up to perform leaps and turns would seem awkward. 

The sidekick Sancho Panza (Derrick Agnoletti) completes some slapstick, and they have an oversized puppet horse that looks like a theatre school group project.  The elements of the story are pushed aside anyway, so the star dancers Carlos Quenedit, who plays a barber named Basilio, and Victoria Jaiani as the baker's daughter Kitri can shine. 

starsThis somber story is enlivened by scenes in the square where a street dancer, played by Joanna Wozinak, and toreador Matthew Adamczyk provide the few moments of Spanish flavor.  These are almost in competition with the romantic leads who barely acknowledge their presence. 


But, we attend ballet for pretty girls in tutus and high leaps from men wearing 18th century military uniforms.  supportThe several solo bits from Basilio and Kitri displayed a commitment to high discipline, taut physicality, and displays of prowess for practiced movements that brought frequent applause and hoops of delight from the audience. 

Often for ballet I sit down front at the Auditorium to absorb the details of set decoration and costume design.  This ballet, though, is just as enjoyable from the mezzanine. 

Feminism in Science Fiction
posted 9/2/2011 by Stella Atrium,

A personal polemic about approaches to writing action adventure stories with women protagonists:

As a young person, I struggled with the label of feminism. I could not identify with leaders of the movement among wealthy married liberal (white) women who expressed outrage at being excluded from high-paying jobs. I also didn't embrace the liberal causes that allocated my limited resources for new citizens or to the less fortunate.

What really burned me (then and now) is that liberal women claim to speak for all women. I know advances for health care and job opportunities have been gained due to their work, but the organizations actively REJECT views from women with different political agendas.

I could not call myself a conservative, though, since I embraced independence for women in areas of finances, pay rates,
travel, property ownership, and reproductive rights. I spent time as a young person arguing for nuanced definitions about the differences between liberated and liberal.

Additionally, since I live in Chicago, many groups for women were populated by women of color who brought with them old rhetoric from the civil rights movement, like they are locked in a time warp or something. I felt unwelcome, more than pushed out, since I was viewed as automatic competition for the few empowerment jobs the movement could carve out on a local level.

Just the same,
in my stories I was actively solving problems for female characters  and how they perceive/ define/ object to/ and address the world outside of family circles. I wanted to spout the party line for empowerment; I just didn't agree with it.

The few principles I had identified and wanted to implement in my stories included:

  • Women make decisions in groups so the reader needs to meet the sister, auntie, daughters, cousins and friends of the heroine
  • Stories about women take place over decades and are often resolved by a grown son who finally addresses a long-simmering outrage
  • Women must solve problems using limited resources and with no voice in the public square
  • Women are often undercut by other women
  • With all these obstacles, women draw culture through hard times (while the men are killing each other) and make-do with the remnants of holocaust
Recently, I have been heartened by what I find among feminist bloggers in the sci-fi world who have noticed the slights toward women in formula stories that are the daily fare of sci-fi novels and movies. Here our views about empowerment of women overlap.

One example is the Bechdel test that demands more scenes in movies where the female characters interact with each other.

Another discussion asks why sci-fi stories that take place on new worlds ignore where babies come from and why that's important.

Princess LeiaTime was... the outrage I felt when reading a novel or viewing a movie in my favorite genre was not reinforced by friends. The classic example is Princess Leia in Star Wars who, as it turns out, was a twin to Luke Skywalker. In the first movie, Darth Vadar, later identified as their father, held Leia hostage on the unfinished death star and ordered her torture. Vadar didn't feel movement within the force while in her presence even though he was aware of Luke from two solar systems away. Go figure.

My recent exploration of the expanding world of book bloggers has been a delight. While I am glad to find I am not isolated due to my ideas about how female protagonists see/feel/address the world, I began to suspect I had found a cache of women among sci-fi feminists who as a group are isolated.

stella pensivePart of the reason I cannot call myself a feminist is because I fear the adults will send us to another room to complain while they go about the business of managing the world. Until you have been disregarded in a business setting as not ready to sit at the table where decisions are made, or automatically called a trouble-maker, this sense of righteous indignation may escape you. I make no apology.

Professor Kay Vandergrift from Rutgers University supplied a few answers that settled my suspicions, especially about women and literary criticism.

"In the past several decades both literary criticism and the theory that supports that criticism have shifted from a base in the literary community of readers and writers to the scholarly community of professors and university students. In the process, literary theory has become more fragmented and, many would say, more isolated, both from the literary works themselves and from the readers and writers connected to those works in the non-academic world."

Vandergrift offers a few parameters [bullet points added] for developing literary criticism, talking most closely about stories for young people.

  • "Theories are judged by their applicability and their usefulness.
  • As new phenomena are created or discovered or existing ones perceived in new ways, theory is revised to assimilate this new information...
  • Each theory opens our eyes to new perceptions and new perspectives, but
  • [each theory] conceals as well as reveals certain aspects of the literary work and the literary experience.
  • Each offers a system of useful, but incomplete, organizing constructs which continually lead to new solutions, new problems, and new theories."

These standards articulate the measures by which I want to critique stories about women, and the standards offer good direction for how I want to develop action adventure stories with female protagonists.

For example, a few stories find an audience because they are about the silence of women. The first that comes to mind is The Piano.

PianoSYNOPSIS: A mute woman along with her young daughter, and her prized piano, are sent to 1850s New Zealand for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner, and she's soon lusted after by a local worker on the plantation. (source: internet movie database)

A good friend claimed the story was about a woman who was raped, so he didn't have to care since the movie belonged in the category of women's issues. One sequence in the movie does show a sexual assault by the husband before he cuts off one of the mute wife's fingers so she can no longer play the piano.

In truth the story is about how Ada McGrath (the Holly Hunter character) overcame oppression. She overcame sleepwalking. She gained security for her daughter. She gained the lover she wanted. She gained a better living situation where she could indulge her musical talent. The rape was an act of control from the husband and only symptomatic to the larger oppression.

So stream of incidents don't classify The Piano as a rape movie similar to The Accused where Jodie Foster's character is gang-raped in a bar.

Can you describe movies that meet a similar standard for changing attitudes toward women? Let's discuss...

Why No Bio-Pic?
Stella Atrium 10/22/11

Article update:  Angelina Jolie to play Gertrude Bell.  See The Washington Times article 11/20/11.

I'm looking forward to the premiere of the bio-pic for Gertrude Bell developed by Ridley Scott. 

Ms. Bell is certainly deserving of the attention from our filmmakers who are our myth-makers.  Here's why...  Atlantic Monthly article from 2007 reviews a biography by Georgina Howell

Bell leadersThe outspoken Bell was in the middle of world events then that led to our current morass.  She spoke out in the company of Winston Churchill and was in community with many Middle Eastern leaders at a time when women were without voice in those countries. 

A critique from a stage play about Ms. Bell included this observation:

"Ms Bell meddled in Middle Eastern politics well into the modern era, playing a significant role in persuading warring Sunni and Shia tribesmen to subsume their tribal identities into the fragile, cobbled-together state of Iraq. Ultimately, Bell was disillusioned and then disconsolate to see the unraveling of her hopes, and to face the mutant harvest of her life's work. To an uncanny degree, her words echo the concerns raised since day one about the wisdom of current American military intervention in Iraq."

"Gertrude Bell describes a dawning awareness of her own and her country's naive entanglement in ages-old loyalties and blood feuds,"

Bell group

So here's my question...   What other women who impacted history deserve a bio-pic?  Who has been overlooked in your opinion? 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Prime Suspect as Newest in Lineup of Women as Cops and Lawyers
9/23/11 by Stella Atrium

Maria Bello has been on TV episodes of cop shows so often, she seem familiar to the audience in her first starring role in Prime Suspect as Det. Jane Timoney, a tough homicide detective who gives as well as she has to take from the sexist boy's club in the NYC squad room.
Somehow Bello comes off as older and meaner that Kelli Giddish as Annie Frost in Chase, and with none of the personal quirks that enliven Kyra Sedgwick's performances in The Closer

BelloBello is often cast as the female heavy, in fact.  She played the hard-nosed dog trainer in Jane Austen Book Club who gets the sweet guy almost in spite of herself.  She has been cast opposite A-list actors in the movies, often as the unhelpful wife.

Johnny Depp -- Secret Window - unsympathetic wife
Mel Gibson - Payback - junkie ex-wife
Viggo Mortensen -A History of Violence - long-suffering wife

Prime Suspect is placed in a NYC squad room with alcohol slurping, snide comment dropping, probably cursing, definitely resentful co-workers.  Even Aidan Quinn, as Bello's boss, looks like he gained 20 pounds to fit the stereotype of Irish Catholic cop.

Bello's snap-brim hat is a nice touch, but too reminiscent of a 1960 cop show with Frank Sinatra titled The Detective.  The new series seems stuck in the previous decade because Jane Timoney is the ONLY woman at work.  Her female nemesis, the mother of the boyfriend's son, folds her hand with the first threat. 

This addition to the lineup of women as cops and lawyers is the more gritty, harder-hitting, less forgiving flavor.  At least it's not Charlie's Angels that premiered the same night. 

Nim's Island & The Tempest

9/23/2011 by Stella Atrium

Nim's Island as a Remix of Shakespeare's The Tempest : a comparison to show the dominance of archetypes

I have written elsewhere that story archetypes are a straight jacket where especially women characters are relegated to a limited number of roles.  Some formulas for action adventure stories are so rigid we can see them work across genres.  The example offered in that earlier discussion was the similar plotlines for the first Muppet Movie and The Outlaw Josey Wales.  (see explanation below)

Another example of how old stories are reworked for fresh audiences can be found in Nims' Island, especially the 2008 movie based on the novel by Wendy Orr. I assert this story (perhaps unconsciously) is a re-working of The Tempest by Shakespeare, which is itself a reworking of archetypes from fairy tales. The similarities are striking.

(see response from Wendy Orr below)

ArielIn Shakespeare's final play, Prospero is an old sorcerer exiled with his daughter Miranda to a Mediterranean island where he frees Ariel (a water spirit) and enslaves Caliban (a lost tribesmen).  Prospero protects Miranda from the truth about his past by keeping her isolated, and he does NOT train her as a sorceress. 

Even when the story is handled by a female director (Julie Jaymor in 2010) where Prospero becomes Prospera (played by Helen Mirren), Miranda is NOT trained in sorcery. Prospera spends considerably more time guiding Ariel into new dimensions than she spends with her daughter's education.  The archetypal princess must be kept unschooled and without work in order to keep her sexually innocent.  But... we speak to gender bias extensively in other discussions. 

ProsperaOn Nim's Island in the South Pacific biologist Jack Rusoe (played by Gerald Butler) leaves his young daughter alone while he goes on a two-day excursion to find glow-in-the-dark plankton. They have a pact to keep the island a secret and both fear the return of a ship called the Buccaneer that carries the taint of knowledge of the world. 

Novelist Wendy Orr invests Nim with curiosity and problem-solving skills beyond her maturity, and allows Nim to manage saving the new turtles, connecting the internet, and blogging with a pulp fiction writer in San Francisco named Alex Rover (played with little humor by Jodie Foster).

GalileoNim Ruscoe (Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine) spends the time alone with favorite pets that include a dancing sea lion named Selkie that does the heavy lifting for rescuing stranded sojourners in shark infested waters, and a pelican named Galileo that flies back-and-forth between the island and Jack Rusoe who has got himself lost in a sinking sailboat. Jack works magic by using the tools at hand to make a raft and limp home.

We can easily see how Selkie serves as Caliban, and Galileo is Ariel from The Tempest. Galileo is the hero of the story, in fact. He piles fish in the boat for Jack to eat. He snatches Jack's tool belt away from Nim on the island so Jack can rig a sail before Galileo guides Jack home.

Now the good part. 

In The Tempest, Prince Ferdinand is separated from the other sailors who have "undergone a sea change" and wash up on the island.  Ferdinand "exchanges eyes" with Miranda and, by way of Prospero's magic, becomes her slave like Caliban is Prospero's slave.

Alex and AlexOf course, Alex Rover and Nim Rusoe cannot provide sexual tension similar to the plotline in The Tempest, because the audience knows from the get-go that Alex Rover is for Jack Rusco.  The fictional character featured in all of Rover's novels is played by Gerald Butler, just in case the viewer could miss the archetypal assumption. This imaginary friend is, in fact, her slave.

In the absence of Nim's father, then, Alex Rover provides advice about keeping a wound clean and commits to leaving her own comfort zone in San Francisco to tolerate the many travel venues, including a sinking rowboat, to undergo a sea change (leaving behind her agoraphobia and dependence on an imaginary friend) and get washed up on the island. 

In fact, Alex Rover spends a few hours on The Buccaneer with the troublesome captain and the events director (similar to the separate story line of Stephano and Trinculo) before she is separated from the other sailors and arrives alone and without technical support to begin to solve real world problems alongside Nim. 

Alex Rover and Jack Rusco don't meet until the final scene of the movie because, in these archetypal fairy tales, all tension flows away when the mating couple touch (read: Sleepless in Seattle). In The Tempest, the final act is about reconciliation and wedding preparations.  Although the speeches are very fine and often quoted, the story unravels into a simple masque.

ProsperoEven Peter Greenway's engaging version titled Prospero's Books with the aging Sir John Gielgud spent two-thirds of the movie time with images of a less-than-traditional wedding feast while a peeing cherub sang in a painful octave. 

So an additional scene of fragmented storyline is inserted in Nim's Island when the Buccaneer arrives while Nim is alone. The captain and events director bring tourists ashore who treat the pristine beach as a backdrop for a Hawaiian luau.  The tourists obligingly run for the lifeboats when Nim catapults lizards and geckos into their midst from the safety of the treeline. 

Inside this action scene one tourist, a boy about Nim's age named Edmund (Maddison Joyce), sees her and enters the jungle to confront her about what she's doing to his parents and the other "pirates".

In this well-written scene, Nim claims that Edmund and all real people aren't what she had imagined from the stories she read. These would be the stories written by Alex Rover who studiously avoided contact with real people while writing in San Francisco. Nim and Edmund seem to argue, but are really engaged in discovery, even touching each other's face for assurance the other is real. 

Nim_AlexCritics complained that Nim's Island provides too many "plastic" events such as Nim riding the back of the sea lion through the island surf. But I feel the level of improbable events is on par with the original work by Shakespeare, and the farcical elements also mirror the precursor story.

The real change here, or growth in our use of archetypes, is that Nim has intelligence, curiosity, warmth, problem-solving skills, and a community of helpers who allow her to make decisions in committee. 

Kudos to Wendy Orr!

Kermit as Josey Wales

In the first Muppet Movie, Kermit is pushed from his equilibrium in the swamp by bad guys who want him to serve as spokesperson for selling froglegs.  Kermit goes on adventure and accumulates several sidekicks including a love interest in Miss Piggy, all the time relentlessly pursued by these same bad guys. Kermit and friends find a new place to settle, but first must negotiate with the tribes who already populate Hollywood.  Before Kermit can win the love interest, he must confront the ultimate bad guy and vanquish him. 

Watch The Outlaw Josey Wales and see if you can find the exact same sequence of events.