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The Dark Tower

For the moment the world's highest building (880 meters); recently renamed the Burj al-Khalifa, no explanation given, but Khalifa coincidentally happens to be the name of the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, which emirate recently bailed out defaulting Dubai to the tune of $10bn.

We call it the Dark Tower, but it reflects the rising sun, for which sight, as for the sunset, we have an excellent view from our balcony windows. What in Seattle they euphemistically call a "territorial view": parking lots, rooftops, lots of sky, actually, the distant skyline of Sheikh Zayed Road, and even on a very clear day, a distant smudge of sea. If you turned kind of sidewise you could see the New Year's Eve fireworks at the Burj Al-Arab, world's most expensive hotel down, on the waterfront.

Seven Days recently published a poem from a 9-year old which read, in part,

Higher than the mall,
All around is small.

Which kind of sums it up.

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Lollipop culture

"It's like a lollipop--you keep a covering on it to keep it clean and nice. You don't want anything dirty to stick to it."

That's what a friend in a girls' school here tells me she has heard from teenage Emirati girls, about why they want to wear the traditional sheila (head scarf) and abaya (black overcoat) when outside the home.

I've also heard in many places about how conservative Islamic dress and social regulations that we in the West would regard as oppressive restrictions actually protect women. Women are safer in societies that practice them, etc. I've always felt skeptical about such claims for many reasons, and living in the middle east has made me even more so.

Here's a recent report from a female correspondent in Syria:

Almost every woman, once she steps out of her house, exposes herself to some degree of harassment. Whether covered or uncovered, women here are used to hearing foul language and sexual suggestions.... They are also used to seeing men look hungrily at them as they walk by in the street. Sometimes the men brush against them, touching parts of their body. This is strictly forbidden of course, but these incidents are rarely reported.
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Yes, I did fall off the edge of the world, which as Michael Swanwick has observed (and contrary to Andy Capp), lies in the middle east. Of which more, later, perhaps. But life goes on even in free fall.

Last year I was too depressed to even attempt the traditional Yule/New Year's food house, once lavishly decorated gingerbread, but now (since no one would ever eat the gingerbread after) made of cake. This year instead of a polychrome Victoria folly I went local and sand-colored, that is to say marzipan-colored. The model is Fort Zubara, in Qatar, but nothing, including the proportions, is very literal.

The structure is lemon-flavored pound cake and Union hotel mud cake, both of proven worth for the task. The mud cake calls for bourbon, not easy to come by here, but a client had given us a bottle of Chivas Regal which is adequate. Both are baked in loaf pans, cut into blocks, and glued together with raspberry jam, which also helps to keep the cake fresh. I used to use royal icing, but this is nasty stuff both to work with and taste-wise.

The round towers were baked in pinto-bean cans and cut to shape. The whole was covered in golden marzipan, which sticks nicely to the jam coating. I couldn't get the crenellations the right shape, but then I lacked the foresight/patience to make a template. The doors, etc. are pieces of milk-choco bar and the posts in the interior are some cookie thing from the supermarket. The sand is brown sugar on a thin layer of royal icing.

It's supposed to be the centerpiece for Christmas dinner, but it was still under construction and we didn't really do a lavish thing with roast turkey etc. since it was just the three of us. The problem is always the battle between not wanting to destroy it and knowing the cake won't last forever. Of course for a week or so you have all the scraps and in this case, since I had to downsize when I realized I only had a cookie sheet to build it on, there were two extra loaves of mud cake to keep us busy. But we started demolishing it last weekend and now have just the front square tower and front wall. The demise of the cake house means the New Year is fully underway

And a belated HNY to everyone!
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A Short Reading List On "True Narratives"

About my statement here that Quite a few literary traditions admit only true narratives (what is meant by true is a more complex matter than it would be for us, but that's another topic), comrade_cat asks, any recommended reading?

The other Toelken, folklorist Barre, repeatedly emphasizes that rather than asking what the myth says about what people believed to be true, ask what values the story is dramatizing. There are some great anecdotes on this subject scattered through his writings on Native American myth, which are among the best. For example, he asked one Navajo singer about a particular healing chantway, "Do you really believe the person is ill because they have red ants in their bloodstream?" The singer reflected and answered, "Not ants, but Ants"(Toelken's typographic rendering), and then, "We have to have a way of thinking strongly about disease." These attitudes aren't necessarily universal; there are literalists and fundamentalists in Native communities too. Collapse )
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Disparate Thoughts on Ballard, the Nature of Memory, a Fisher-Queen, and Fantasy Generally

Have missed several Black Gate blog posts. Here's today's:


RIP, J.G. Ballard.

His was among the strange New Worlds fiction that I encountered as an unsuspecting kid in my brother's sf collection, higgledy-piggledy among the Clarke, Asimov, and Simak. I didn't know what to make of it then, but it's been sitting in my backbrain all these years, still messing with the contents.


Strangely, one of my grad school professors was, like Ballard, born and raised in Shanghai, and like him was also interned as a boy by the Japanese during World War II. He said, of both the book and movie versions of Empire of the Sun, "It was nothing like that." I wish now I had taken notes; he gave a number of specific examples. But it shows that memoir (and memory), like fiction, are the product of an intensely personal process. This is the construction of meaning through narrative.

In searching academic literature on memory recently, I came across a review article on "Trauma and Memory" (Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (1998), Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 52:S97-S109). The author compares the recollection of traumatic events with ordinary memories from both a clinical and a neuroscience perspective. Combat veterans and other sufferers of PTSD do not experience recollection of the most traumatic events as memory, but as fragments of direct, unprocessed sensory input. During traumatic experiences, the sense-impressions received by the brain bypass the parts, like the hippocampus, that would organize them into a coherent form of consciousness, and so memories do not form as in ordinary experience. This "organizing" is the creation of a narrative out of the fragments and at the same time, creation of meaning which the fragments lacked. At the clinical level, processing traumatic memory was the stitching together of a story of the experience..... a process which most of us, most of the time, do so effortlessly we hardly notice.

No wonder being told stories, in fiction, in movies, in art, has such a huge effect on how we think and feel. Narrative is how we think and feel. Collapse )
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On Writing Different Genres

Last week's Black Gate post. Behind, as always these days.


Last week I had no figures at hand regarding children and teen reading rates. A 2007 National Endowment of the Humanities report on the topic is available here in pdf format (number 47). The short version is that the reading rate is not declining for children, but that as teenagers increasing numbers of kids stop reading. The 20-page executive summary does not define what they mean by "literary reading," but in the summary for report 46, it's given as "The reading of novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any print format, including the Internet. Any type was admitted, from romance novels to classical poetry."

Also, I inadvertently posted an outdated bestseller list. Here is the most recent PW children's fiction list online; the ABA's indie children's bestseller lists overlap but are not identical. Both are heavily weighted toward fantasy, and this is even more true of the series lists.


Yesterday (my yesterday; I'm 8 hours ahead of EST) Theo asked about subgenre preferences. I write in several different subgenres ranging from mythological fantasy to hard sf, and all writing is difficult, as far as I'm concerned. I do think there are differences, but first, a quibble, terminological or semantic as you prefer: all fiction is fantasy. Those of us of Indoeuropean linguistic and cultural affiliation participate in a set of related literary traditions who knows how many millennia deep, in which there are major narrative genres consisting of stories not considered true. This isn't so in all other parts of the world. Collapse )
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Children Are Reading Fantasy

The cross-posting of this week's Black Gate screed.


There's recently been a bit of discussion here about kids reading sf/f. I spent some time this morning looking up sales figures for children's and YA speculative fiction, to discover that the most detailed information is in market reports that you have to pay for. Still, a few points.

First, no argument that gaming is a huge and growing market. I recall hearing recently that it has now surpassed movies in the entertainment hierarchy, but whether this was in terms of total dollars or percentage of people who consume, I can't now remember.

The percentage of kids who read is still in decline, though I haven't seen recent figures. As population grows, the total number of kids who read seems to be going up, however, or the kids who do read are reading more, as book sales are rising. Collapse )