Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Thursday, December 31, 2009

How to define a classic?

but, I I like to get responses to my blogs, and I'm happy to toot my own horn in these last few hours of 2009 by saying that I've gotten a fair number of responses, some critical, some supportive, and some that made me think.  One of these came from my Instant Classics post.  This post generated a fair amount of response, because, I suspect, some people came across it, and thought I was somehow dismissing or demeaning Maud Hard Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series.  I wasn't.  I loved reading her when I first stumbled on, I think, it was Betsy, Tacy and Tib Go Over The Hill, when I was in the third grade.  I thought it was a wonderful story, and, just as I often do now when I come across a writer I like, I looked for more books.  I ended up reading the entire series, and am glad I did!  What some Betsy-Tacy Society members took for "grumpiness" being excessively "critical" was more a degree of puzzlement about why the series turned up in the "literature" section of my local Barnes & Noble outlet.  I just hadn't thought of it as a series "for adults", nor had I ever thought it would get reprinted, but there it was.  And I must confess, I'd never heard of the Betsy-Tacy series until that very moment about two weeks ago. 


One of the respondents to this post, asked me what I though constituted a "classic".  This is a very fair question, and I must confess that, even after giving it thought for several days, I still haven't come up with an answer.  Even if I had, my answers would no doubt irritate at least some people.  Some of my posts obviously did, but that's another story.  I suppose this is just part of what goes with the territory when you blog.  In any case, this writer asked me if I thought Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books were classics, or Little Women.  I suppose it's easy to answer "yes" for Little Women, since it has kept getting reprinted practically since the time it was first published.  But then, so has the Little House  series.  I read many of the Little House series to my daughter at a certain age.  I don't know what she "got" out of them.  But then, I read the Narnia books to her, too.  I loved the Narnia books as a younger person, and love them still, though there are parts of them that make me cringe now(e.g., just for one example, all wolves are bad and evil, but foxes are "all right").  There are many people who consider the Narnia books and the Little House books to be classic literature, though both are, in some other areas, "problematic" in certain ways, though I would never, ever say one "shouldn't" read them.  So I think, yes, they can certainly be called "classic children's literature", and to qualify, these stories must also be satisfying to the adults who read them.  Good "children's" literature, generally does satisfy any adult who reads it, and that is one way I judge these things.  It's not the only way, but that's again another story. 


I think, and I must emphasize here that this is what I think, and anyone reading this should feel free to disagree, the Betsy-Tacy series occupies a kind of gray area.  The series was very good, and Maud Hart Lovelace was an excellent writer, whose work, showing Betsy and Tacy as they grew toward adulthood, was very insightful(in certain ways, and for her time), as well as entertaining.  I have to reserve judgment about the "classic" nature of her work, but at the same time, I recognize that the roots of the kind of material she(and, to some extent Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well), actually stretch back to Jane Austen and her work, which was aimed at adults and were "novels of manners".  They centered around description of relatively "small" incidents, and character development, rather than lots of action and changes of scene.  Now, personally, I don't much care for Austen, but she has millions of fans.  Perhaps many in the Betsy-Tacy Society also like Austen, but I certainly can't speak for  them.  I will say this, however.  Austen, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, seem to have had a considerable influence on at least one person I know, who is a good friend of Again I emphasize that I have no problem with this, other than, I prefer much larger, more complex canvases, and that's the way I write.  It's one reason why I ended up writing a "romantic science fiction" trilogy set in medieval England, around some very real events and people.  Which can be frustratingly difficult at times. 


I also mentioned in the Instant Classics? post, that there were a number of reissues of books(mostly historical novels, but also some science fiction), by authors such as Norah Lofts, and Anya Seton.  I loved these books too, and it was from these authors, I think, that I conceived the desire to write something set in medieval England.  Here, too, I'm glad that they're being reissued, but again, in my opinion, these books occupy the same "gray area" that the Betsy-Tacy series does;  they are very, very good, but weren't considered anything but "entertaining literature" at the time I remember reading them(but then, historical novels weren't taken terribly seriously, and sometimes still aren't, unless they were, or are, written by men).  Are they "classics"?  Again, I don't know.  And as I said, I'm glad these books are being reissued.  There is definitely a readership thirsty for them, and I'm glad of that, too. 


But, dear blog readers, I've probably said enough about this.  I will leave to everyone's individual judgment, what they consider a "classic" to be, whether it's written for children or adults.  In the meantime, I wish you all a prosperous and Happy New Year, and please, feel free to drop in any time during the coming year.  There will be many exciting literary and other things going on(I'm sure there will be a bunch more interesting stories about wolves, tee hee!)  I extend this invitation especially to members of the Betsy-Tacy Society, and anyone else who thinks I have been overly critical of certain aspects of writing and the writing process.


Looking forward to 2010,

Anne G

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More wolf news from all over!

I've just stumbled across a very interesting blog that tracks the movements of wolves on remote Ellesmere Island.  These are wolves of the high Arctic, and they are usually a bit smaller and shaggier than their mainland conspecifics, and arctic wolves, in general, are usually white or almost all white. The Ellesmere Island wolves are no exception.  They were tracking a wolf called Brutus(he was radio-collared) and it turned out he and the rest of the pack travel far and wide, even to neighboring Axel Heiberg Island, in search of muskoxen and Arctic hares, their staple diet.  It's impossible to track them at this time of year, because the sun doesn't rise there from about the middle of October till the second week or so of February.  Besides which the temperatures and other conditions would make this pretty impossible.  How the wolves manage under such circumstances, I don't know, but they have to eat, like everything else. 


The article is accompanied by some pictures.  The first is of the paths followed by Brutus and his pack.  These wolves apparently trotted themselves over the ice pack to Axel Heiberg Island, but they didn't stay by the shore.  They went inland in search of their meals.  The round trip took about a week and covered nearly 100 miles.  And the map also shows all the other places they traveled.  Wolves do a lot of this kind of "traveling", especially in the Arctic, where their territories need to be quite large, for obvious reasons, if you think about it.  Anyway, there's a really nice picture of one pack member(or at least I think it is a pack member; it sure isn't Brutus, because it's a mother with a pup) 07__north_pole_wolf-660x443














Enjoy, she's obviously an Arctic wolf in the Arctic,

Anne G

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Have you heard the one about the historian who no longer reads historical novels?

No, I didn't "hear" that one, I saw it, here!  In some ways, I can't blame her.  If you're a historian, I guess you're going to be able to pick out what you think are "anachronisms", "modern" thinking in historical times," etc., etc.  But when it comes to things like words for "mother", "father", "mama", papa", etc., what's going on here?  It's interesting that many languages have "pet" names for mothers and fathers and other close relatives, and a lot of them sound like "mama" and "papa",especially when coming out of young mouths.  But Magistra et Mater isn't a linguist, so presumably she wouldn't be aware of this. 


It seems to me that what she really wants, and what I've complained about elsewhere is "total" accuracy for whatever period she's reading about.  Even in periods where there's an abundant amount of material that can be mined as research, this simply cannot be done.  As for as "modern" attitudes go, well, I kind of wonder.  If, for example, my heroes had completely "early medieval" attitudes, they would probably be totally unsympathetic.  That doesn't mean I don't recognize that such attitudes existed, it just means that at least some of the people are exceptional in some ways(besides, it's "romantic science fiction set in medieval England", not a history treatise, nor a "pure" historical novel.  And it has "anthropological" material in it, or I wouldn't otherwise be writing about Dauarga/Neandertals as some of my central characters. 


The real problem here is, a kind of academic snobbery, not unlike some "literary critics" who moan about "popular" works like Twilight and  the Harry Potter series.  These people want "beautiful writing" about "character development", whereas many readers just want A Good Story.  This doesn't mean you should write sloppily or have inconsistencies in your story.  It just means that there are some things that are more important to a lot of people than they are to these literary snobs(there's no other word for them, in my opinion).  Historical novelists, however, do offer an opportunity for the reader to learn "more" about whatever period they are writing about, and it is not uncommon for people who read historical novels to later get into history majors, and become professionals, in some way or another.  Similar things have happened to some science fiction readers, who get into science that way. 


I think Magistra et Mater has fallen into the common trap of thinking that, since they have become "experts", they must find fault with anything written by a nonexpert.  Some fiction, like some historical films(such as Kingdom of Heaven and Braveheart in the movie realm, and things like The Da Vinci Code in the "literary" realm), richly deserves the opprobrium it is given.  These pieces are laughably inaccurate, as in Braveheart, and/or they have, as in the case of The Da Vinci Code, very obviously "mined" certain dubious source "works", which are themselves full of historical "junk".  However, the author apparently does not recognize that a historical novelist is not a historian, is not expected to be a historian, and shouldn't be held to the same standards as a historian, no matter how "representative" of a time or place any piece of historical fiction is supposed to be.  I've seen whines about this in anthropology journals(mainly about the Jean Auel's Children of Earth series.  There, the problem is, that the academics in question wish they were as famous, or had made as much money as Mrs. Auel, but they're academics, and aren't as famous as Jean Auel or her series.  It is quite possible to make legitimate criticisms of her series -- she has obviously done extensive research, but Ayla, her heroine, is too much of a prehistoric "everywoman" to be completely credible.  Yet, if she hadn't written Ayla this way, would anybody have eve read her books?  I don't have an answer to this, but novelists must make authorial decisions all the time about things like this, whether it's "accurate" or not.  On the other hand, I do think the novelist in question should research as thoroughly as they can, and work the "accurate" bits into the background.  It won't be "history", exactly, but it might inspire someone, some day, to research a period on their own or even(gasp!) to become a historian themselves.

Anne G

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Medieval peasants weren't the downtrodden souls they're sometimes made out to be

Or, at least they weren't in England, according to this article!  It seems like the peasants liked to dress as nicely as anyone else when they could, and apparently they were often able to put together the money to buy nice accessories, too.  These accessories may not have been as "fancy" as the dress and accessories of lords and ladies, but they weren't the plain, dull stuff some people picture them in.  Naturally, the "higher orders" thought the peasants should "stay in their place", and churchmen especially, decried "fancy" clothing for the peasant class.  And, equally naturally, the peasants didn't agree, and went on buying "fancy" stuff anyway, whenever they could, and wore such things when the occasion demanded.  Which might have also been more often than you might suppose, since there were lots of feast days, harvests, etc., where people tried to dress in their best.

Anne G

A little bit for the Neanderphiles

For the Neanderphiles among my Gentle Blog Readers,this article makes some nice, though relatively "light" end-of-the-year reading.  As the John Hawks blog say, there's nothing really new in it, unfortunately.


But why did the article have to  be accompanied by such an ugly picture?

Anne G

Friday, December 18, 2009

A wonderfully "noirish" medieval noir

Westerson, Jeri
Serpent in the Thorns
Minotaur Books, New York, 2009
276 pp.
ISBN 978-0-312-53498-1

Jeri Westerson has done it again! When I read kVeil of Lies, I was impressed. Ms. Westerson writes very well. But some people didn't think Veil of Lies was"noirish" enough, or at least, being set in the Middle Ages, couldn't possibly be a "noir" type novel.

This, of course, is a matter of opinion. To me, "noir" can be set in any time period as long as the person has been "cast outside" in some way. The hero, Crispin Guest, certainly has, though he also most certainly has people on his side, including his (sort of) servant, a boy named Jack, and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. The only trouble is, the king isn't on his side, because Guest supposedly did a Very Bad Thing(you'll have to read the books to find out what the Very Bad Thing was; I'm not giving this away).

Unfortunately, Crispin Guest is also in a Very Bad Position, though he has friends on various sides, and needs them. And, if anything, he needs friends more than ever in Serpent in the Thorns; in this book, it at least looks like everyone is betraying him, even though he knows, or thinks he knows, who kille a French envoy(he turns out to be wrong on this, but that was due to the fact that the person who came to him in the first place. . . . well, never mind. Again, you'll just have to read the book to find out more.

Westerson does several things I wish I could do, but don't quite seem to be able to manage. First, she writes with "economy". Her novels aren't all that long, but they're very satisfying, and because she is writing a series, she can explore Crispin Guest and his times in more depth than I think a lot of "short" books do. The second thing, which I may get better at over time, she conjures up a "flavor" of fourteenth-century London in a way that is rare, even for people absolutely steeped in the history and culture of some past time.

This, I think, is truly a gift, and Ms. Westerson writes so well, it's a pleasure to read her offerings, and for this reason, I am looking forward to her next Crispin Guest novel with anticipation. She hints that it might be "a little different". I don't know. I'll just have to wait and see.

If there is any flaw in this book, I think it is a minor one -- at the beginnning, it was a little hard to get into, for some reason I can't really articulate. I have no idea why. Perhaps I just had too much on my mind at th e time. However, I got past this rather quickly, and after that, Jeri Westerson's wonderful story simply took over.

Anne G

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another book review, actually two of them at once

Kyle, Barbara
The Queen's Lady
Kensington Publishers, New York, 2008, 530 pp.

The King's Daughter
Kensington Publishers, new York, 2009, 489 pp.

I don't usually read "Tudor-themed" historical novels, much preferring earlier periods, or reading nonfiction about this period, which I sometimes do for information. However, I more or less stumbled across The King's Daughter, by accident, at my local library. And I'm glad I did, because it was a good, satisfying complex read, and an interesting tale with a heroine who won't let anything get in her way: not her parents, not Queen Mary Tudor, nor anyone else.

The book was so good, that I decided to look at The Queen's Lady, which was the first book in this set. They are both related, as the mother is the heroine in the earlier book, and the daughter in the later one. In both cases, they face religious misunderstanding and persecution for their (eventually) rahter freewheeling beliefs.

As both stories take place at a time when religious passions(and religious persecution) were a huge feature of the European landsacape, there is, as one might expect, an underlying theme that what we now call "tolerance" should be strived for. I think, given the dates of the original publication, and the reissue of both books(they were first written about 15 years ago), that people need to think on this message of toleration once again, given that various religious sects and traditions, and people of no faith or religious tradition, are again all shouting at each other that "only they" are right, and one should "only" follow "them" to true enlightenement and salvation.

This is not an eeasy message for a lot of people to swallow, but I think the books both go a long way to making it easier, at least for those people who happen to read them.

Both heroines, and the men they encounter, at least the heroes they eventually end up with, are engaging, and the stories have lots of overlapping subplots, which tend to involve famous people of the time(e.g., Mary Tudor, about to marry Philip of Spaion, Henry VIII, in the earlier book, Katherine of Aragon, etc.). Kyle picks one or two famous characters to focus on, then exposes them to what she thinks are both their flaws and their virtues. In the case of The Queen's Lady , it's Sir/Saint Thomas More, who stubbornly clung to his version of Christian faith, but in Ms. Kyle's hands, seems to come on like an intolerant fanatic with, uh, problems. Queen Mary Tudor is also flawed; she insists on marrying Philip of Spain, even though she knows this marriage is unpopular with the English in general. It is against these backgrounds(which involve the pursuit of "heretics", among other things), that the heroines of both books must move, and both of them are determined to wade right in.

They wade right in, which gets them both into various kinds of trouble, from which they get dramatically rescued, and the machinations of the villains in both books are dramatically thwarted.

It is these last "twists" in both tales that seems most "artificial", because they almost seem like a kind of "deus ex machina" device in both books, but it more or less works. The heroine has done everything she can do, though perhaps from certain perspectives, the fact that the hero has to step in and save her at the end might seem a bit "forced"

However, oddly enough, I found that both books have a good deal of strength. For one thing, they are longer than most books by relatively unknoown authors, today. They each run about 500 pages, which is very unusual nowadays. My own feeling is, that character and plot, at the hands of a novelist who knows what they're doing(and I think Ms. Kyle does), are better handled at this length, than they are with shorter books. It's really too bad that considerations other than "writing" ones are dominating the market at the moment. You have to practically be someone like Stephen King or Dan Brown, to get away wirh writing a long(er)novel. Which is too bad, because I think there is a place for such work, even among "unknowns". And, quite frankly, a longer book somehow just feels more satisfying.

In any case, I really liked these books, and anyone who likes historical novels should at least take a look. I cannot say how "accurate" they are, although I'm sure Ms. Kyle did her best, by the look of things. But perhaps it doesn't matter. As I've said elsewhere, even in a historical novel, story needs to come first. But that's another "story".
Anne G

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Instant classics?

A few days ago, I was hunting around for a book I was reading(from the library), that apparently had been republished. I will be reviewing it, and its sequel, a bit later, once I've finished the book. While hunting around for this particular book, my eye happened to fall on a book(or was it boos?) in the Betsy-Tacy series, by Maude Hart Lovelace. I remember reading many of the Betsy-Tacy series as a child and young teen, and they were itneresting, and memorable in a way. But I wondered as I wandered: why were these being reprinted as adult books? Or, to put it more precisely, books for adult readers? I suppose you could say they were "historical", since they all take place in the early 1900's, up to about World War I.

In this case, it turned out that there is a Betsy-Tacy society, dedicated to preserving Ms. Lovelace's books for posterity. These are people(I imagine mostly middle-class, white women of a certain age), who in some way see "themselves" in a much more "innocent" time and are fond, as many people nowadays claim to be, of "innocent" books. I don't have any quarrel with this per se, but on the other hand, I don't exactly consider the Betsy-Tacy series, nor Maude Hart Lovelace, to be "classic" books, nor is she a "classic" writer, again in my opinion.

But this is just my opinion. There seem to be a lot of reissues, particularly of certain historica/romance type books, for which there is, apparently, a genuine readership. For example, many of Anya Seton's books(including my, and a lot of other people's favorite --Katherine), which is fine, because many of these books wer eout of print for a long time. Same thing with another of my favorite historical writers -- I got the name of one of the characters in my Great Medieval Science fiction Masterpiece with Neandertals from her -- Madselin. The book of that title hasn't been reprinted as far as I know, but another one calledThe Lute Player has. It's an odd book in some ways, as many Norah Lofts books are; there's a streak of, well, weird sour realism in some of them, and I remember this in The Lute Player.

The weird thing about all of this is, none of these books were considered anything but "popular" literature when I was reading them. Maude Hart Lovelace was a children's writer, and I found her books in the children's section of the library. Now they're apparently "for adults". Norah Lofts and Anya Seton were "popular" writers in the 1950's and earlier 1960's, and were certainly not treated as "literary" in any sense of the word.

Not that I'm unhappy with any of this republishing, but what makes a "classic", anyway? I'm old enough to remember reading these books when my hair wasn't gray. And I didn't think much, one way or the other, about them, except that I liked much of Norah Lofts and Anya Seton's writing, and I loved most of their subject matter. I certainly never thought they'd every be considered "classics". but I suppose tastes and times change, and things go in and out of fashion. As I said, maybe it has something to do with some people longing for more "innocent" times, whatever that may mean. As I say, I'm not pointing fingers at anybody in particular.

But it's also interesting that these books were a lot longer than is generally "allowed" nowadays, and some writing conventions that were "allowed" then have fallen out of fashion. Personally, I find longer books a lot more enjoyable, and I'm writing each of my books in this Great Medieval Science fiction Wioth Neandertals triology somewhat longer than is generally "allowed". . . .even ten or fifteen years ago, when the book I am now reading, was first published, a relatively unknown writer could get away with a 400-500-page book.

I also notice that the vast majority of these republishings are historical novels and "romantic-historicals" written by women. there aren't any similar books written by men(I mean certain "guy books" with lots of adventures, etc, not romance or "historical/romantic"). The only other genre I'm familiar with where "classic" authros have been republished is certain s-f collecions of authors like Isaac Asimov(though he has never really gone out of style), or -- all I can think of at the moment is Theodore Sturgeon, and a few others. In this case, the men outnumber the women by a huge margin, because when I frist began reading science fiction, most of the writers were men(with the exception of Zenna Henderson, some of whose work has also been reprinted).

All I can say to this is, the world of book publishing seems increasingly bizarre to me. Agents say that, from unknown authors, they want "short"(e.g. around 300 pages max) books of any kind, yet people complain that they are not getting "enough" new talent. I know economics plays a role in this; it's easier to print a shorter book than a longer one, and more profitable, at least until the author becomes better known. But why can't these guys take a chance? It's not just the publishers; it's the agents as well. And it's so difficult to get published that I see a lot of authors twisting themselves into knots to get themselves published. Again, I don't blame them.

And yes, I see a place for these old "classics" being republished(if you can, truly, call them "classics"). But why the republishing of old authors and titles, when there are a lot of good people who do good writing(and yes, I've seen that, too: I've been critiquing a lot of stuff, lately, so I know. I'm just puzzled, that's all. And I guess it's a puzzle that won't immediately be solved. At least not by me.
Anne G

Monday, December 7, 2009

Elizabeth Chadwick's Medieval Mondays

Today, Monday, December 7, 2009,  the author Elizabeth Chadwick has started a weekly feature on her blog, called Medieval Monday  Yes, it will be a weekly feature, if what she says is true.  The first one was absolutely fascinating; about a period when men in England grew their hair long, and the Church didn't like it, and what was done about it.  Or rather, what the men(at least some of them) did about it.  She also has another feature that looks very interesting -- the first and last sentence of whatever material she's been working on.  That might be an interesting read, too.  I certainly enjoyed it. And I"m looking forward to even more fascinating weekly tidbits.

Anne G

Friday, December 4, 2009

I'm adding to my blogroll again

Today, I have the privilege of adding another blog to my blogroll.  This is a medieval blog, specifically earlier medieval England.  It's name is Anglo-Saxon England.  It is written by a person who also runs message board called Englistory, which is also very valuable, full of lively discussions, and there are interesting people on it, but it covers a much wider range of historical times and places than just early medieval England.  There is a great deal of material on the Anglo-Saxon England blog that is relevant to my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece, either because it covers historical events mentioned in my book(s) or else it gives me background material I can incorporate into it. The blogger also lists the sources used for some of the blogs, and it covers some material that is reasonably accessible  to a non-scholar one way, or another.  So with a flourish, and a bow, and a ta-da, I will leave things at that, and all the Gentle Reader of my blog has to do is click on the link, if they are interested, and they will see what I mean.

Anne G

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The lessons of NaNoWriMo

As I noted in an earlier post, I am an "official" NaNoWriMo winner, having written over 50,000 words of about half a novel, which is a prequel to my Invaders trilogy.  This novel, tentatively called The Tale of Mat Fartraveled, needs a lot of work, so I'm kind of setting it aside for the time being, as it will have to be rather extensively revised, and I will probably change a number of things within.  But I haven't decided exactly how, at this point, although I know I"m going to make the beginning a lot shorter, so I can get a lot more into the action.  There's way too much "backstory" where there shouldn't be, among other things. 


But all of this is another story.  As for the things I've learned, it's like this:


At first, I wasn't even sure that I could write 50,000 words in a month, but I did.  And I found that I only had to work at this about 2 hours a day, to turn out a decent sized chapter, which I didn't know previously.  This is going to change how I work on my other material.  Seriously.  I should also note that since most writers have other jobs they must perform in order to support themselves and their writing, or they have "family" obligations of one sort and another, it is important to know that you can put aside a relatively short part of your day to devote to your writing, and get a lot done! 


Second, I learned writing discipline!  I sat down and wrote something, even if it wasn't very sensible, each and every day.  Again, this is something for any writer to keep in mind.


Third, I started out basically, with just a single character, who is prominent in the trilogy, but deserved "his own" story.  To begin with, I had only the vaguest idea of what this was, though I know how it's going to end -- basically in a way that leads into the trilogy, but can stand on its own reasonably well. 


Finally, although I discovered that many people who participate in NaNoWriMo may be competitive overachievers who write great chunks or whole first drafts, those of us who are not competitive overachievers can still accomplish great things.  It's not "competition", but persistence that counts!  And if you expect to get yourself published and read some day, you must be persistent in pursuing your goal, and you must believe in it as well. 


NaNoWriMo is over for this year, but not forgotten, and never will be.  I am going to participate again next year, though what I plan on doing probably will be "all" science fiction/adventure, not "historical".  In the meanwhile, I hope to get my trilogy in much  better shape, though the first draft is in a lot better shape than it was when I first wrote it.  For now, I just feel happy that I've accomplished what I set out to do!

Anne G