Saturday, July 29, 2017

American Gods is -- wait, what?

In casting about for a topic for this year's Magic Realism Blog Hop (and thanks to Zoe Brooks for organizing once again!), I reviewed a list on Goodreads of books purported to fall under the category of magic realism. Not too far down the list, I spotted Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

I read the book several years ago, before I'd really begun studying mythology, and thought it was pretty weird. I mean, I liked it, but a lot of it seemed surreal. And confusing. I was fairly far into the book before I twigged to the fact that (spoiler alert!) Mr. Wednesday was Odin, the Norse Allfather.

So when I saw the book on that Goodreads list, I hesitated. I remembered several key scenes from the story -- the "Russians" living in genteel poverty in Chicago, the car in the lake, the hanging tree -- but not much else.

And then I remembered Starz had recently created a series based on the book. So I began to stream the episodes, in order to refresh my memory, and discovered -- oh haha -- season one don't cover the whole book. There's going to be at least one more season. Welcome to video storytelling in the 21st century.

Also, I was right -- American Gods is weird. But is it magic realism?

We've had our share of "what the heck is magic realism?" posts on this blog hop over the years. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to use Merriam-Webster's definition:
A literary genre or style...that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.
If that's strictly what we're going by, then I suppose both the series and the book qualify. The main character is Shadow Moon, a black ex-convict who runs into a mysterious con man named Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday hires him as his personal assistant. His duties become increasingly weird as things around him get more and more surreal.

Eventually, we figure out that Wednesday is a god, that a whole lot of gods immigrated to America with their followers, and that new gods -- the media and technology -- are staging a takeover. In the America of the story, gods survive only so long as people believe in them.

But back to the show.

The question for me is not whether American Gods is sufficiently fantastic; the question is whether it's realistic enough. It's set in America, but much of the action seems to happen on a different plane of existence. For example, Shadow suffers a pretty severe beating and lynching in episode two. But apart from a nasty torso cut that requires staples, his wounds seem pretty minor. Why isn't his face swollen? Is it because the whole thing happened on a different plane? Or is that just TV not being realistic? (I don't watch a lot of TV, so you'll have to tell me.)

Gaiman has written a number of great books, including some wonderful magic-realism novels. I'm not sure, though, whether American Gods qualifies as magic realism. Fantastic, yes; surreal, for sure. But magic realism? For me, the jury's still out.

What do you guys think?

These moments of magically real blogginess have been brought to you by Lynne Cantwell and the 2017 Magic Realism Blog Hop. Please check out the other posts in this year's hop!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Reasoning vs. rationalizing.

We live in rancorous times. Here in the United States, we're split by political views -- conservative on the right, liberal on the left -- and each half is further fractured. Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress, but they have been unable to get much done; major pieces of legislation have been shot down by moderates who think they're too harsh, and by members of the Freedom Caucus who think they don't go far enough.

Democrats are okay with that. But they can't get themselves together, either. Neoliberals, who has been in charge of the party for the last several decades, are still trying to figure out how they lost the presidential election last year -- while progressives are frustrated that the party is not embracing their farther-left economic stances fast enough.

Each side keeps trying to convince the others of the rightness of their position, using poll results replete with charts and graphs. "Proof!" they cry. "Why won't you listen to us? We're headed for disaster! Why won't you change your minds?"

It turns out we're not hardwired that way.

A whole host of studies have been done on decision-making behavior and how preconceived notions affect it. One of the most striking was done by a Yale law professor in 2013. He set up a fairly complex math problem and had the study participants come to a conclusion from the data given them. I won't bore you with the details (you can see the questions at the link). But the upshot was that when the question was about a skin cream that caused a rash, people who were better educated at math were more likely to get the answer right.

However, if the question was about concealed-carry laws and whether they made crime better or worse, knowing more math didn't help. In fact, people did worse if the data were presented in a way that went against their stance on gun control. In other words, conservatives did well if the right answer showed that the ban didn't work, but poorly if the right answer was that the ban did work. The same was true in reverse for liberals. And the people who knew more math were worst at picking the right answer if it didn't support their stance.

This goes back to confirmation bias: humans' tendency to form an opinion first, and then seek out facts to back it up. Moreover, when confronted with facts that don't back up our opinions, we tend to reject them -- or figure out some convoluted way that they actually fit our opinion. Knowing that, we should all be searching out opposing viewpoints to challenge our opinions, but of course we don't. And the harder we're pressed to change, the more likely we are to stick our fingers in our ears and go, "LA LA LA LA LA!" until those annoying nonconforming facts go away.

So if we won't challenge ourselves, and we won't listen to the other side, how do we bring everybody together again?

In the past, major historical events have been catalysts. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 both caused Americans to rally 'round the flag. Examples of positive events are harder to come by, although the moon landing might fit the bill. In each of these cases, opinions became divided some time after the event: many people now are second-guessing our going to war against Iraq as a result of 9/11, and some folks are questioning the money we spend on space exploration. But in the first flush of excitement -- or horror -- we all pretty much reacted the same way.

We must find a way to come together again soon. We cannot continue to function as a democracy (or, to be more precise, a democratic republic) without some degree of common ground. Let's hope that this time, it's a positive event that brings us together.

These moments of reasonable blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Oh, what a tangled...

I have news!

1. The latest anthology from Five59 Publishing dropped this week, and I have a story in it. The book is called Free for All because there's no theme; some folks wrote short stories, some wrote poems, and some wrote creative nonfiction. My offering is a bit of my work-in-progress memoir -- a shaggy dog story about getting my mother to the eye doctor. I've already posted part of the story here, but the version in Free for All explains why I had to take Mom halfway across the country to get her eyes checked in the first place. Anyway, the ebook is only $2.99, or free to borrow if you have Kindle Unlimited.

2. Maggie on the Cusp is in the hands of my editors. And in a burst of inspiration, I began plotting the third and final book of the Transcendence trilogy this week. The next book is going to require more research, but I'm confident I can get going on it shortly. By the way, have any of you ever driven to Mexico City? Asking for a friend...

3. You'll recall that last week, my latest knitting project had stalled out because I was running out of yarn. Good news! The indie dyer who makes the yarn I'm using is going to make a skein for me. It won't be an exact match, but that's okay.

The bad news is that it'll be at least another couple of weeks before I get the new skein of yarn in the mail, since she has to spin it and all. So I've been casting about for something else to do in the meantime. I picked up an afghan project I started months and months ago -- but summer is not the best time to be working on an afghan, air conditioning or no. So I picked up on another project that's been on hiatus for a while: my first real attempt at weaving.

When I was a kid, my mother bought me an E-Z Weaver loom. Here's how Marx Toys advertised it on TV:

Looks like a piece of cake, right? Eh, not so much. I got two or three inches of my very first project done before Mom yelled at me for pulling the yarn too tight. Then some kid who came over took the loom out to play with and broke it. It sat in its box in my room for years before we finally threw it out.

A few months back, my local yarn shop sent out an email saying they had some very simple looms in stock, for people who wanted to try weaving. You can spend big money on a loom; the one Elsie uses in Seasons of the Fool probably cost a couple of thousand dollars. It sits on the floor and takes up a good-sized chunk of her living room. In contrast, the loom I bought cost $30. It's about the size of a piece of notebook paper -- and it came with how-to-weave directions!

I sketched out a design on notebook paper and started weaving. The fringe along the bottom -- they're called ryas in weaving -- turned out okay, so I pressed on. By the time I was four rows into my design, though, I realized it was way too complicated for a first project. (Diamonds? Really? What was I thinking?) I set the project on a corner of the dining room table -- and there it sat, silently rebuking me, for several months.

Yesterday, seized with determination, I pulled it out. Using my original sketch as a rough guide, I finished weaving my design -- yay! Unfortunately, the woven piece was very much compressed from the drawing. Six or seven inches of design-on-paper made about three inches worth of weaving. Rather than make myself completely crazy, I decided to fill in the top with stripes. Also, by the time I got that far, I was sick of weaving in ends and decided to just braid the tails from the stripes.

Here, then, is the finished product. Feel free to laugh. A third grader could have done a better job.

I have no earthly idea what I'm going to do with this thing. I'm thinking I should shorten the fringe, at least -- but why? I'm not going to put it up anywhere.

Maybe I should stick to knitting.

These moments of badly-woven blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Playing yarn chicken.

I was going to do a knitting post this week because I thought I'd have a cool, new project done. Alas, the project is not done because I'm running out of yarn.

See, there's a game knitters (and crocheters, too, I imagine) play. It's called "yarn chicken" and it goes like this:

  1. (a) You see a pattern that strikes your fancy and dive into your yarn stash (or your favorite yarn shop) to find something that will do it justice; or (b), you fall in love with a skein of yarn at your local yarn shop, bring it home, and then head to Ravelry to find a pattern that will show it off to its best advantage.
  2. The pattern calls for a little more yarn than you have in your favored skein, but you go for it anyway. Everybody knows designers factor in an extra ten percent when they figure yardage for their patterns, right?
  3. About halfway through the project, you begin to eye what's left of the pattern and what's left of your yarn, and you get nervous. Very nervous.
Sometimes the designer really did factor in that ten percent extra, and you're good. Sometimes you're not good.

Which brings us to my current project. The yarn is Sparkle Sock by the Lemonade Shop, an indie dyer -- which often means that when a colorway is gone, it's gone. Fire Pit is the colorway I lost my heart to: it's gray, with short stretches of yellow and red (and a little green for variety), and it has stellina spun into it so that it sparkles. The pattern I chose is called Fire Dragon Wing, and it calls for 100 grams, or 430 yards, of fingering-weight yarn. My skein of Sparkle Sock had 100 grams and 428 yards. Totally within the ten percent fudge factor, right?

So I cast on and started to knit. And I was so pleased with the way it was turning out that I posted this photo on Facebook a few days ago. Looks cool, doesn't it? With the wedges of varied widths and the bits of fire here and there? It put me in mind of the dragons in the Pern novels. I could envision it as the wing of an ancient dragon -- a blue, maybe, the color of her hide faded with age, and battle-scarred from fighting Thread.

Then I kept knitting, and watched my yarn dwindle. The photo below is from tonight. I have three more wedges to go, plus a final wedge. Oh haha. It ain't happening. I've been weighing my yarn after every wedge completed to figure out how much yarn I've used and comparing that to how much of the shawl I still need to knit. I'm going to be about 25 yards short.

All is not lost. The company is still making this colorway, but not with the stellina wound in. I have a message in to them to see whether they might have a skein of the sparkly kind still laying around (though it's highly unlikely). I've also messaged someone on Ravelry who has a skein in their stash, on the off-chance they'd be willing to part with it. I could find another gray yarn with stellina in it -- Amy has one, but it's not really the right color gray. Or I could buy a skein of the non-sparkly yarn and mix it in, row by row, and hope nobody notices the diminished sparkle (and likely the gray in the new skein would be a slightly different shade, too).

Another option would be to frog the whole thing and re-knit with a needle that's one size smaller. That, also, will not be happening.

In any case, the shawl will not be ready to show off tonight. Sorry, guys. Maybe next week. But don't hold your breath.

In other news, I am preparing to hand off Maggie on the Cusp to my editors directly, once I fix a continuity issue. I'm hoping to get the book on sale before summer is over, but my window of opportunity is closing fast. Sales of novels historically tend to slump after Labor Day -- people are busy getting back to work and school, and marketing folks begin aiming for holiday promotions -- so the timing isn't ideal. But I need to move on and get going on the final book of the trilogy. More news as it happens...

These moments of blogging chicken have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Thoughts on giving, and on getting taken.

Pixabay | CC0
"Bitch," the man said. I turned and flashed him a smile, because I didn't know what else to do.

This was a few weeks ago, before I left on vacation. I was on my way to a meeting in Old Town Alexandria, and had just enough time to stop and get a sandwich for dinner. I parked on the street near the restaurant and went to pay for parking. Old Town has converted to a centralized metering system; there's a station in each block where you pay for your parking and receive a slip of paper to put on your dashboard. The meter takes only coins and cards; it took me a minute to figure out there was no slot for the dollar bill I had in my hand. I shoved the dollar back in my wallet, used my magic plastic to pay, put the receipt on my dash, and headed for the restaurant.

That's when I passed the guy. He asked me for money -- I can't remember what he said, maybe that he hadn't eaten all day -- and I said in a rush, "I'm sorry, but I don't have any cash to give you!" It wasn't a lie, exactly; just because I had a dollar in my wallet, it didn't mean I had the wherewithal to give it to some guy on the street. But I'm sure he saw that I had that dollar. Hence his comment.

I always come away uneasy from these sorts of interactions. Not this one, necessarily; once he called me a bitch, I was even less inclined to help him, even if I could see his point. But in general. I work in a big city, and in the block between my office and the Metro station are a few regular panhandlers: the guy who plays the trumpet every morning; the woman who frequents the corner by the Metro, child in tow; the guy who sits in the middle of the block in the evening, chanting change change change like a mantra. Then there are the folks who sell Street Sense, the newspaper produced by the homeless. I pass all of them every day, and I feel terrible about it, like I ought to hand in my "progressive" card (if I had one) because I never give any of them any money.

But see, I've been taken. Once, on a Metro platform, I was approached by a woman who claimed to be a lawyer. Her purse had been forgotten/lost/stolen, and could I help her out with cab fare? I opened my wallet to give her a $5 bill, and she insisted I give her the $10 bill in there, too. At that point, I should have told her to call her secretary and have her call the taxi for her -- but it happened so fast that I didn't think of the rejoinder until much later.

And I always wonder what these folks are going to do with the money they collect. Will they use it to get food? Booze? Drugs? The easy answer is to give to charities, and I do. But even then you have to be careful. We've all heard the stories about so-called charities that are in business mainly to line the pockets of the people running them.

The homeless and the down-and-out hear those stories, too, and so maybe they'd rather not ask for charity. Or maybe what the charity is giving isn't what they need. There's a van from a local charity that stops at the park in front of our office building every evening. They hand out sandwiches on white bread to the homeless folks who line up for them. Seagulls follow the van -- they know some of the people who get sandwiches won't want them, or won't be able to eat them, and the gulls will have their own dinner from the scraps. It's not that the poor folks are ungrateful. But what if they can't eat the sandwich for health reasons? It's like if you offered a peanut butter sandwich to a hungry kid with a peanut allergy. Should he give it back and risk being called ungrateful? Or should he eat it and risk suffering anaphylactic shock?

I guess the fact that all of this bothers me is proof that I'm not a jerk -- but that seems too glib. So does, "I gave at the office."

I wish I had a better answer.

These moments of unsettled blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.