Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Intelligent and unintelligent thrillers, Part I


I've been a bit slow this month, for a variety of reasons. But today, I'm introducing a series in several parts, which will include reviews of what I call "intelligent", v. "unintelligent" thrillers. But first, I have to define what I mean by both types.

First of all, the "thriller" genre is almost always, though I believe there are a few exceptions, written by and for men. Which doesn't mean women don't read them, often with great pleasure, as happened to be the case with the last two thrillers I read. One was "intelligent", and the other was "unintelligent". I'll get more into this below.

Generally, these thrillers involve a lot of mayhem and chases, over vast portions of the globe, to uncover some apparently accidentally discovered secrets. They often string together several apparently unrelated pieces of information strung together so that at the end, it is more or less "satisfyingly" resolved in some way. The "thriller" genre covers a wide range: everything from the works of Dan Brown, to the works of John LeCarre, and everything in between. The LeCarre books are definitely "intelligent", but Dan Brown is considered, for a lot of reasons, equally definitely "unintelligent"

To get further into the definitions of "unintelligent" v."intelligent" thrillers, we need to look a little farther into it. "Unintelligent" thrillers, while often a lot of fun to read, try to stretch suspension of disbelief to incredibly thin lengths, though the writers of these things are often very good at what they do. Which tends to make them fun to read, but essentially, not very plausible. If you read some thrillers that have supposedly "historical" roots(usually centering around some ancient "prophetic" scroll or something like that, and often involving the Vatican(or some other religious body that believes the ancient texts will overturn everything they understand about their religious faith, and there's always someone from \whatever religious body it is, trying to prevent the hero(they are always men) from getting to the "secret". If you know anything about the real circumstances, then the premises often become , well, pretty implsudinlr, yo dsy yhr lrsdy. Duvh yhtillrtd trly hrsbily on loyd og yhr z'lsyrdyz'. often military type technology, to lend some plausibility to the way they go about their thrilling adventures. Then, too, these heroes often have a military background of some sort.

"Intelligent" thrillers, by contrast, don't rely so heavily on gadgetry, especially "military-type" gadgetry to make their stories seem plausible. They rely less on "gimmicks", too, so the disparate elements eventually to be much more plausible. Also, the heroes are often not military types; they tend to have families, or end up with one, which makes for much sweeter endings, and that overused word "closure". This closure, as in a ll genre fiction, has to be reasonably plausible, but it can't seem forced, which it may in "unintelligent" thrillers. They also tend to be somewhat better written than the "unintelligent" ones, and often, but again not always, the writers of the "unintelligent" ones are British.Some readers of thrillers, however, shy away from these action-oriented, but plausible thrillers, for the "whiz-bangy" "unintelligent" ones. The readers may know they are completely preposterous(and I've talked to some who apparently do), but what they're really after is the action, often just want that. But then, these "unintelligent" thrillers are pretty much archetypal 'guy books" anyway. Be this as it may, we now have a working definition of an "intelligent" v. an "unintelligent" thriller, and I will be expanding on this in the next parts.

There is more to come,
Anne G

I wonder why?

The blog Wolves of the High Arctic, which is researching the wolves of Ellesmere Island, has announced that the local Inuit people have denied the researchers a chance to radio-collar the local wolves. Which kind of puts a crimp in their activities. The question is, I wonder why this is happening. I think I will try to find out, to the best of my ability. Meanwhile, I'd like to hear more about our local Washington wolves. . . .
Anne G

Friday, June 25, 2010

The "language" debate -- again

Another bomb in the "language and authenticity war" has blown up in the blogosphere that caters to readers and writers of historical novels. Since I have one foot in that camp(and try to keep the "history" part at least reasonably accurate, and another foot in the "romantic science fiction" camp, I tend to follow such debates rather closely. And they do go on and on, seemingly forever But this one

One school of thought, and, contra the author of this particular blog, may be a minority, but it's certainly not slient. The followers of this school of though tend to be very vocal in insisting on usuing lots of "period" language, up to, and including, "old" place names, and deliberately "olde-tymey" langauage. Such usage isn't always appropriate; I recently tried to read a book set in Anglo-Saxon times which used this "olde-tymey" language, and it came out sounding like really bad imitation Shakespeare(and it wasn't meant to be funny, as the use of such language often is), but this author was dead serious.

In the case of the above author on the above blog, the person actually makes a case for this kind of writing. They admit, however, that one has to be careful about such language; there are words like "jet" and "go-cart", used for travel, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but 300-400 years later, they have quite a different meaning, and that is to be expected. Yet some readers reading the work where this kind of language is is used, claimed the usage was "too modern", even though the usage was authentic! Which is just one hazard in using "olde-tymey" words that are familiar to a modern reader.

But it's worse than that The author of this blog sets up a distinction betwee "writerly" and "readerly" books.. The former are somehow to be savoredfor their word usage and word play. The latter are "popular" -- the kind you would find in a drugstore or at an airport, which automatically implies, to the author, at least are forgettable things you usually just throw away. Many such books, whether historical novels, mysteries, thrillers, or something else, are basically "forgettable" in the way he describe. But not all. Because of this distinction, which is basically derived from earlier critics' dismissal of "genre" fiction, as opposed to a certan type of "literary fiction". The latter,is, in the minds of these sorts of critics, automatically "superior", the "only" kind of fiction anyone with a brain should read. In some circles, if you even admit that you like science fiction, or romances, or enjoy reading thrillers, no matter how silly the premise of any given thrilly, as opposed to, say, Jane Austen(no, I don't generally read literary fiction or Jane Austen; I just don't like either genre all that much, though some people are shocked, shocked when I tell them this) This author thinks "erudite" readers will "prefer" this kind of language-play and weird, or "olde-tymey" usages, place manes, etc. The blog entry also implies that readers and writers who "prefer" this kind of literature are somehow superior to those who want a good story. Whhich, IMO, is an incredibly snobbish way of looking at reading habits. My feeling is this: If you want "serious" stuff, get out a book on the history of any given period, read up as much as you can, while dipping into books written in your favorite time period or place. I also realize that what some historical fiction authors, in their heart of harts, really want to write a lightly fictionalized history text. And some readers like this, too, including, apparently, the author of the blog entry. There is nothing, per se, wrong with this, if you really do like this approach to historical fiction or any other genre. But it's not a matter of superior reading or writing habits v. inferior ones.It's a matter of individual taste. And it's not a matter of "good" or "bad", either/ there are, in general, no "good" or "bad" tastes in reading, or writing, just individual ones.

Which brings me to the blogger, and his "relationship" to Anya Seton's Katherine. For the blogger, Katherine basically falls into the "popular but forgettable" category. And the author goes after Katherine for what I think is one of the flimsiest of offenses, namely, what he considers to be "howlers", e.g., "mollycoddle", "chunky", and "scrawny", among other things. I don't know for sure about "chunky" and "scrawny" being used as words in the 15th century, but there are some who say they can make a claim for "mollycoddle". But, as the author of the bolg points out, most readers probably won't "notice" this. He does, because he says he cares; for him, the use of words like "mollycoddle" in the 14th century are just plain dealbraeakers. Fine, if that's what ye wants. But to argue against an author, and a book, which has been highly influential, often to readers and writers of historical fiction, in the nearly fifty years since it was first published, shows the blogger doesn't really really know, or care much about what many readers and writers like to read and write. Or if he does, he simply dismisses it. This is unfortunate. But perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Anya Seton was a woman, writing historical fiction at a time when most historical fiction writers were men, and those men may well have been jealous of her popularity upon writing Katherine.

I should also add that Katherine had a tremendous influence on me, personally. I first read it in my fifteenth summer, and I thought it was wonderful! I have reread it several times since then, and loved it, until the very last time, when it seemed a bit, um, "19050's-ish" to me. But in many ways, it was not only and enjoyable read, but in some ways, a highly influential one. Without having read Katherine the idea that I wanted to write a novel set in medieval England would probably never have occurred to me at all. Since I was also quit3e the science fiction reader at the time(and still am, to some extent), I never would have dreamed up the category "romantic science fiction" to characterize the "science" part of this historical fiction. Furthermore, I think I began learning a lot. I'd never heard of Katherine Swynford before, and ti made me want to learn a lot more about that, and the subsequent period that led to the Wars of the Roseses. I realize few readers would go this far, let alone end up doing some fairly serious historical research for the novel I"m writing now, but I"m hardly the only one so influenced. Katherine is hardly a "forgettable" book; it has sold steadily and appreciated by many since the day it was published. And I truly do not think one needs to be a snob about admitting this, whether reader or writer.

The bottom line here is, I really, really detest snobbish attitudes about anything at all. And when it comes to writers and writing, I practically hit the ceiling when I see evidence of this in writers or readers. Sorry, but I do. Such people may have cultivated "good taste", but they don't seem to realize that it is their tastes they are promoting. Which, in and of itself, is also not bad. If one, for instance likes books and movies with "weepy" endings, that's fine. I've seen at least one person who has explained why they do. And that is also fine. But they didn't attempt to impose their tastes on anybody else, nor did they consider themselves in any way "superior", though I still prefer "happy ever after", and that's the way I write mine.It is the assignation of certain kinds of literature that the truly "erudite" "should" enjoy, if they are truly "erudite", with its built-in attitudes, still sometimes filtered through departments of English in various colleges and universities, that does. I should add that though people who have gone through English majors, are exposed to a lot of "good stuff" , and this is sometimes visible in their writing efforts, most of these "English major survivors" are not snobs about their experiences, though their tastes in reading may be different from mine. In any case, it saddens me to see yet another opinion piece or blog space, still, in this day and age, expressing such opinions. But even then, I respect them, though I disagree.
Anne G

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dissing Neandertals still goes on, despite new discoveries

Gentle Readers:

I came acorss this post Via a review in Salon, of Brian Fagan's book Cro-Magnon. I must say that Dr. Fagan is a well-respected archaeologist and a good writer who has written many books very good books on various aspects of archaeology. I should also mention that I meant to blog this post several days ago, but have not, for various reasons(partly to do with the now-seasonable weather after a very crappy month of May. In any case, the reviewer seems to think the book is already out of date. And I tend to agree with him.

First, the term "Cro-Magnon". It is popularly used as a standin for early "modern" humans living in Eurasia, who are scientifically named Homo(sapiens)sapiens. But scientists prefer "early moern human" or "Early modern European" to "Cro-Magnon", simply because the latter term is much more inclusive. Furthermore there are no apparent "modern" human fossils found coterminous with the later Neandertals(Homo(sapiens)neanderthalensis. Though the Chauvet Cave painings are generally considered to be the work of "modern" humans, there have been no fossils found, that would prove this, one way or another, at least not in most parts of the world where Neandertals and "moderns" apparently coexisted. There are still big arguments about this, with some workers even thinking Chauvet Cave was decorated by Neandertas, but this can't be proven either. Be that as it may, it appears that Dr. Fagan feels that Neandertals were, somehow, just not smart enough to compete(whatever that might mean in the context) with "modern" humans. Why? Because, in his view, "modern" humans had cave art and Neandertals didn't.Wow! He also thinks they were totally separate"species" that died out, perhaps because "modern" humans "preyed" on them. The only trouble with that idea(aside from the fact that Fagan has had this notion for a rather long time, though in other works, he did't dwell on it), is that at the Max Planck Institute, in Leipzig, Gerrmany, Svante Pääbo and his team have been extracting Neandertal genomes for years.

They started first with mitochondrial DNA, which in Neandertals, appeared to be quite different from "modern" humen mtDNA. This led Pääbp amd his team to conclued, in 1997, that, yeah, Neandertals were definitely quite different from outselves. But wait! The moment Pääbo and his team announced this, studies came out from other geneticists suggesting that it wasn't quite that simple. Among other things, modern chimpanzee subspecies, have greater differences in their mtDNA than did Neandertals.

Then there were the archaeological studies over the years between 1997 and 2010, that suggested very strongly that Neandertal behavior seems to have been very similar to ours in a number of areas, given that they mostly occupied different areas, and had different materials and potential food available to them. In a place calld Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, some 60,000 years ago, they were catching reindeer/caribou in a similar fashion(but without guns and snowmobiles or other transportation devices), in very much the same basic way that certain Alaska natives do in Central Alaska: they essentially herded them, or "met" them as they were crossing a stream(just as modern caribou do in Alaska) in order to get to forests to live through the winter(and breed). Fall is mating season among Rangifer tarandus, and it is also the time they migrate from open tundra to forests with deep, protected snow to keep wolves and other predators away. They are also at their best at that season, and provide a lot of food. Neandertals must surely have noticed their migratory habits and took advantage of this to plan their hunts, just like tradtional "modern" humans do.

Then there's a cave in Jordan called Tor Faraj, where Neandertals lived, patterned their living space in that humble cave, built fires near their sleeping areas to keep them warm at night, and so onIthey seem to have done that in various caves in Spain, too). Also, some 60,000 years ago or so, they were using birch pitch to make glue so they could better haft their tools(including "thrusting" spears which they mostly apparently used. Other workers discovered that, later on, Neandertals were associated with the so-called "Chatelperronian" style of tool making(and symbolic objects like necklaces or pendants. Some of these imply that Neandertals understood symbolism just as well as "modern" humans did. This strikes me as being very sophisticated indeed. And the archaeologist Francisco d'Errico claims that they came up with this "Chatelperronian" style independent of any "modern" humams. Others pooh-poohed him, claiming that the Neandertals "only imitated" what they saw on "moderns". This is one of the stupider conclusions I've seen, because aside from imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it takes anunderstanding of symbols and like characteristics, to be able to imitate anything. But then, people used to think that the native people of Australia were stupid, too, yet they knew to used some materials from the invading Europeans, for their own use on weapons, which strikes me, at least, as extremely smart.

Finally, in 2010, João Zilhão, found a stash of shells of some deep sea mussel in a cave in Spain. It was a Neandertal cave, and the shells had been decorated with a mixture of red hematite, ochre, and some slightly sparkly substance. The shells, in other words, were painted a kind of peachy orange, and strung through natural holes, for some probable symbolic purpose. Remnants of some shells seem to have been used as mixing cups for this purpose. Some West African people used to do things like this. Maybe they still do.

But that wasn't all. By 2010, Svante Pääbo and his team started in on sequencing the nuclear Neandertal genome. It is not yet compliete, but the results were a complete surprise: People who ended up in regions other than sub-Saharan Africa have some 1-4% "Neandertal" genes! Sub-Saharan Africans don't, but that hasn't stopped them from contributing to the gene pools of the rest of the world, one way or another, including, of course, the fact that they seem to have given us the modern "morph", which is the glue that holds all the world's populations together, IMO. We can no longer deny our kinship with Neandertals, a misunderstood prehistoric group, if there every was one. In fact, they are what I like to call a "despised group"; nobody in their right mind, supposedly, would claim kinship with them. One paleoanthropologist(whose psssible identity I won't reveal here, in order to protect the guilty), thinks Neandertals were so ugly and stupid he actually said he was glad he was different from them! But even "despised groups" are now asking for their human rights, and if Neandertals were still around, I am sure they would be, too. Unfortunately, they are a prehistoric despised group, which is not around any more, at least not as a distinct type, so they can't. That is one of the reasons, aside from the fact that they are strong presences in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, I write about them a lot. My aim is to make them respectable.

Having said all of this, it is quite apparent that Brian Fagan has no interest whatever and checking to see if his theories are correct. He doesn't appear to care if Neandertals are respectable or not. But many people do.The views presented in Cro-Magnon now seem wildly out of date, according to the reviewer, and I tend to agree with him. Whether or not Neandertals are Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or just Homo neanderthalensis, it is increasingly obvious that they seem to have thought like us, made the same kinds of decisions(given the respective contexts) as us, and generally behaved in ways quite similar to ourselves, mich as wolves and coyotes have similar habits(coyotes even form packs, where undisturbed) --and they have been known to mate! Three-qaurters of all "wolves" around the Great Lakes area have "coyote" gene sequences, and there are "coyotes" in New England and southeastern Canada, that have "wolf" genes. What does that make them? I don't know, but I have come to the conclusion that the genus Homo, starting at least with Homo erectus, were all capable of interbreeding, as this very same reviewer seems to be suggesting.

So Brian Fagan might want to consider two possible courses of action(or maybe both of them at the same time). First, he might want to try to open his mind a bit and get over his(and a lot of other people's) fixation on the (mostly anatomical IMO differences between Neandertals and ourselves, and he might also want to consider not involving himself in a subfield about which he very obviously knows almost nothing, except "recieved wisdom" that will, most likely, turn out to be quite mistaken.
Annne G

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I have an idea!

Over at another site I inhabit from time to time, there was a discussion going on about mysteries, likeable characters in books, and more specifically, a subgenre of mysteries known as "cozies". These are mysteries that are more like the ones Agatha Christie used to solve, and which were popular with people of my mother's generation, and some women of mine. My sister also likes these kinds of mysteries, but I'm the oddball. When I was growing up, "cozy" type mysteries were about the only kind you could get, unless you wanted really "noirish" stuff. I never read a lot of mysteries at that time, mainly because they never seemed to go much of anywhere, and I couldn't really engage with the characters. I guess I thought most of them were just to "nicey-nice", except for the ones who turned out to be whodunnit.They were the only ones with flaws or personal problems to solve.

But I'm not here to "denounce" cozies. They are obviously a popular subgenre, and there are a lot of them around. What interested me was, that one of the people who chimed in on this discussion, hated, absolutely hated, mysteries solved by "telepathic cats" or other companion animals. I understand this person's feelings. Besides wolves, cats are my other most favorite animal, so I've tried to read a few of these, and, quite frankly, they are very, very boring!

But this gave me a (sort of) idea. What if there was some way to write a mystery where wolves solved it in some way. Of course there would have to be humans involved too, and it would have to be in some place where there enough wolves to make this a possibility. Maybe Yellowstone? Isle Royale has been done by at least one person. Then how would you get the wolves to go about solving the ,mystery? I have a kind of half-baked idea right now(talk about writer's creativity) Maybe I could get my Dauarga(Neandertals) involved? It's an interesting idea, and to many people it would sound absolutely crazy. Or maybe, to make it slightly easier, I could substitute coyotes for wolves(they pretty much the same habits and reproductive cycle as wolves, and they are very, very common around here, even residing in city parks. I don't know. What do you, gentle readers, think of this? It wouldn't be a cozy, because I don't think I could write thoseII;ve read a few cozies that I've actually liked), so anyone who reads this and likes "cozies" please don't be offended; it's just that my tastes just differ somewhat from yours. In any case, I'm going to tu4rn this around in my brain for a while and see what comes of it. The project might be interesting!

Oh, and any suggestions or opinions, pro or con, will be cheerfully accepted.
Anne G

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Neandertals arrived early in the Briitish Isles?

Wel;l, at least judging by a snippet , accompanied by pictures, from the Beeb, they did. Some archaeologists found some flint tools and dated them to around 110 kyr ago. Which is a lot older than 60 kyr, by nearly half. According to this same article, since there was no English Channel, since the glaciers essentially sucked up so much moisture that what is now the English Channel and part of the North Sea, were essentially something like Beringia. In other words, if you had to hunmt reindeer/caribou, horses, mammoths, elk/red deer, etc. you could follow herds of them wherever they went. And that is what some Neandertals apparently did, at least according ot the article. I have a feeling this is going to be another possibly contentious issue, as even as the announcement was made, some people pronounced themselves skeptical. We'll see, but I have a feeling it will make some awfully interesting reading as the articles go back and forth.
Anne G

This is the first of June, so I'm back, finally!

Well, I should say I've never been away. But I've not been feeling well lately, though thankfully slowly getting over whatever this curd is this time. It kind of snuck up on me, and I thought it was my annual round of pollen allergies. But I usually stop coughing or sneezing when I'm in an "allergy free zone". I couldn't this time around. A family member, not living with me, though, came down with a much nastier version, and I knew I had what she had.

But the other problem was, my computer went out of commissio, earlier in the month -- agian. It turned out that the hard drive the computer people put in last February, was a bummer. So I didn't have to pay for anything but the costs of the labor this time. Fortunately. So that
kept me out of commission for another little while. Ugh.

Besides, there wasn't too much going on that I wanted to blog about. Well, yes there was, but once I got this crud, I just didn't feel like blogging about it, at least not in May.Which is why I haven't blogged much in the past month. Never fear, though. I think there are going to be a fair number of things I'll be blogging about this month, and in coming months. I don't yet know what they'll be, other than they will be somehow connected with my writing. I'll keep y'all posted.

And you should all bear in mind, that computers are a bit like cats -- they do exactly what they want to do, regardless of the owners wishes. And unlike cats, computers are not warm and furry.
Anne G