Sunday, August 29, 2010

Armadillocon 32 -- Day 2

Things really got underway today in Austin with a reading by Joe Lansdale. In his rich Texas accent, Joe read three short pieces and then told stories about his daddy, an oversize Texan given to saying things like "We were so poor that if it cost a quarter to shit we would've had to throw it up." This entertaining half-hour was a highlight of the day.
I did four hours of programming: two panels, an hour of steadily signing books (astonishing for such a small con), and a "Toastmistress Interview," during which I answered questions asked by the very capable Elspeth Bloodgood in front of a small but appreciative audience. Throw in chatting in the con suite and hallways, and by evening I was hoarse. The atrium of the con hotel:
Dinner cured my hoarseness. Maureen McHugh, Nebula-winning local author, organized a trip to eat Texas barbecue at Rudy's, which is also part gas station. Long wooden tables, concrete floors, oiled sheets of paper as plates, the best creamed corn I have ever had, and slabs of various meats -- brisket, ribs, sausage, turkey -- served with Rudy's own barbecue sauce. It was delicious, and different from the more vinegary Carolina barbecue I am used to. However, the one Vegan among us was reduced to dining on a bag of potato chips. She came along for the company.

Here is Patrick Swenson, laboring away in the Dealer's room:

Back at the hotel, Kasey Lansdale, Joe's daughter, was giving a concert of country and western music. I love C&W and Kasey, a professional singer, was very good. Alas, the sound system was not.

The day finished in the bar, drinking apple martinis and listening to the piano player. Meanwhile, Leslie reports from Seattle that she is taming Cosette, the Terrible Tiny Poodle, through a combination of water bottle squirts, rewards, intensive attention, and a run in the dog park. Leslie's hand has stopped bleeding. But Cosette and Les's poodle still attack each other.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Armadillocon 32 -- Day 1

I am at Armadillocon in Austen, Texas. They tell me the heat wave of last week has broken, which means it was only 97 degrees. However, the hotel Renaissance is cool and dramatic, having both a central eight-story-tall atrium and a courtyard full of stone bison. Here I am astride one of them:

Lunch at Mangia, a traditional pizza outing organized by Lawrence Person, featured some of the best pizza I have ever had, barbecue chicken pizza with a vinegar-barbecue taste. In the afternoon I did an interview with Brent Bowen of Adventures in Science Fiction; this will be podcast sometime in late October or early November. Throughout all of these activities, however, ran a growing nervousness: the Opening Ceremonies marked my first occasion as Toastmistress. Usually I don't get nervous performing in public, but this was a new gig for me and I had prepared assiduously.

What was it Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans? The speech was well-received, but the jokes depended on my cell phone ringing at certain intervals and my then answering it and pretending to talk to Google. Jack Skillingstead, seated in the audience, was primed on when to call me. Unfortunately, the half-underground ballroom failed to find a T-Mobile signal. Michael Bishop helpfully shouted RING! RING!, which helped some, but... And so it goes.

Here are the con guests that I introduced between non-rings, from right to left: Special Guest Michael Bishop, Editor Guest Anne Sowards, Artist Guest Cat Conrad, GOH Rachel Caine, Special Guests Andrew and Ilona Gordon, Fan Guest Elspeth Bloodgood, and the befuddled toastmistress, waiting for the phone call that never comes.

Opening ceremonies were followed by a Meet the Pros party, then a late dinner with Jack and Patrick Swenson of Fairwood Press. Meanwhile, back in Seattle, poor Leslie Howle was coping with my dog. It was not going well. Cosette and Leslie's poodle, Luke, hated each other on sight. Cosette was disoriented from having been carted to two new locations within ten days. When Leslie tried to move her food dish, Cosette bit her. Leslie, an old hand with dogs, was not too perturbed, but I am. This is no way to keep friends. Maybe I'll just stay permanently in Austin.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Barbara Ehrenreich (NICKLE AND DIMED, BAIT AND SWITCH) is always an interesting observer of contemporary culture. Her latest book takes on the cult of happiness in this county, and BRIGHT-SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA is thought-provoking.

Ehrenreich's basic thesis is this country is caught in a relentless barrage of "put on a happy face." Upbeat is not only the new beat, it's the required one. Employers want to hire positive-thinking, upbeat employees. Churches insist that God wants you to be happy and prosperous. Self-help books as well as professional counselors tell us to shed those people in our lives who spread gloom and doom. A positive attitude, the belief goes, is an aid to health, long life, and fighting disease. Have faith in the future and you can conquer all difficulties.

One by one, she takes apart these stances. The positive-thinking employee is valued over the dour and competent one, but in the long run it's competence that keeps business moving. The nay-sayers in your life may actually be providing important reality checks. A blind faith in the future, whether assisted by God or not, is part of the cause of the current economic collapse, through all those people signing for mortgages they could not afford because "Dare to dream in the present and the future will come through." There is no scientific evidence that health responds to a positive attitude. Worse, the idea that if you stay positive you can fight off, say, cancer, means that all those people who die of cancer just weren't positive enough. It is therefore their own fault.

Ehrenreich sometimes overstates her case, but so does the other side, and she offers many studies to corroborate her views. My favorite is a 2001 study actually conducted by a proponent of positive psychology, David Seligman (AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS), which found that among older people, pessimists were better able than optomists to weather a major negative life event such as the death of a family member.

Sometimes the emphasis on positivism can turn absolutely ghoulish. Popular positive-thinking guru Rhonda Byrne stated about the 2006 Asian tsunami that disasters like a tsunami can only happen to people who are "on the same [thought] frequency as the event."

The result of this kind of thinking, Ehrenreich argues, is a culture of forced, false illusions that blames victims of illness, poverty, and -- yes -- even tsunamis for their own misfortunes. As such, it turns away from social cooperation that might change things, from compassion for others, and, finally, from reality itself. Be happy! Don't worry! Visualize good things ten times each day and they will come to you!

Sometimes they don't, and sometimes there are things out there to worry about. You can only cheat reality for so long.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cranky At the Movies

When you fall asleep at a movie and begin to snore, that constitutes a review. When no one around you goes "shhhh," that constitutes another.

But in case my snoring at the Majestic Bay Theater is not sufficient, let me say why I hated EAT PRAY LOVE. I hadn't expected to hate it, because I found Elizabeth Gilbert's book (with commas, which somehow disappeared on the way to Hollywood) highly interesting. It's an inner journey, from an exclusively secular romantic despair to a state in which the equally secular author is finally able to accept and blend physical pleasure, a spiritual practice, and a realistic love affair. The journey starts in New York and ends in Bali, with Italy and India in between.

Gilbert is a nuanced writer with high awareness of her own motives and reactions, both of which are usually a complicated mess. In the book we are privy to all this complexity. The movie, however, downplays the spiritual journey and instead concentrates on Elizabeth and men. Either God is simply not as interesting as sex, or else He is too explosive and unsettling a topic for any movie that doesn't just take pot shots at Christian fundamentalists. Granted, watching people meditate for hours in an ashram does not make for much dramatic action, but the movie could have tried a little harder to show why Elizabeth bothers, what she gets from it, and why it matters to her. Instead, we get bantering with a male ashram-ite from Texas.

Julia Roberts does the best she can with this shallow stuff, and she is lovely to look at. The food in Italy is lovely, the saris in India are lovely, the scenery in Bali is lovely. Even the men (Stephen, David, Richard, Ian, Felipe) are lovely. But neither scenery nor loveliness a movie maketh. Skip this one and read the book instead.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On Being Spoiled In America

For a few weeks now I have been visiting my widowed father, who lives in an old house far out in the country. It has been a lovely visit -- except that it has revealed to me, yet again, how spoiled I am by modern living.

My father's house is not modern. It has a well and septic tank instead of municipal water. The well frequently runs low, at which point water is abruptly if temporarily unavailable. The septic tank is old and finicky and you must be careful what you ask of it to absorb. To pamper both, the water pump is set on low, so that the washing machine takes nearly an hour to fill. The dryer takes about the length of the Iraq war to dry a load of towels. The water is hard, without softening agents, which leaves mineral deposits on dishes, hair, and occasionally clothes.

There is no AC.

The microwave runs at 700 watts, and if you use it in conjunction with anything else, you will blow electrical circuits.

The sinks and toilets, built to an older building standard, are too low for comfort.

Now, none of this is exactly Third World poverty. That I get impatient with taking all day to do three loads of laundry (we had weekend guests) or with having my shower abruptly interrupted while my hair is soapy, hardly qualifies me as deprived. What it does do is underline how the bar raises for all of us. I grew up in this house, and as a teenager accepted all this as normal. Now, accustomed to greater efficiency in household amenities, it seems irksome. As good a definition of "spoiled" as any other.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Hunger Games

I have been reading the first two books of Suzanne Collins' wildly popular YA science fiction trilogy, THE HUNGER GAMES, and I am seriously disturbed.

Not by the extreme violence of the books. I think it's now a given that young readers can accept violence. Nor do I think this is due only to video games, current movies, etc. My own teen-age reveries, which consisted of stories I constantly made up for myself , were also pretty violent, and then was back in the early Triassic. Imaginative kids know how violent the real world can be.

And Collins' books have a lot to recommend them: fast pace, some nice writing, a lot of excitement, an appealing heroine, Katniss. Collins is even able to reconcile Katniss' likability with the fact that she kills people, mostly by showing both the dire necessity to do so and Katniss' deep regret and remorse.

What disturbs me about these books is their total implausibility, and the fact that this apparently bothers no one, neither young readers nor the journals that give the novels glowing reviews (BOOKLIST, LIBRARY JOURNAL, PUBLISHERS' WEEKLY). Here is the set-up: a future United States is conquered by a brutal "Capitol" that suggests a high-tech ancient Rome. Each year, each conquered District must send two children to compete in televised gladiatorial games to the death, to which the Gamemakers also contribute various devices and procedures of agonizing torture. This has been going on for 75 years without uprisings from the Districts. We're expected to believe that torturing their children keeps parents passive, rather than as enraged as a she-bear with cubs.

I don't believe it. Parents would not passively send twelve-year-olds, year after year, to torture. An entire population would not watch these televised Games without a resistance movement arising sooner than 75 years. Not even Rome featured child gladiators. And since District 12, unlike the others, is guarded by fairly benign soldiers who participate in its black market and don't guard the fence around the District very well, at least some adults would slip through to hunt the plentiful game in the woods outside. But, no, only two teenagers, Katniss and her friend Gale, do so. It is, of course, a tradition in YA that adults fade into the background, but here all adults are either passive, incompetent, or brutal.

And this is not fantasy, but SF. Katniss, unlike Harry Potter re Dumbledore, has no particular magical talent or inherited status to justify being relied on by adults. It's just that all the adults are inept, cowardly, or both. What really bothers me about all this is that apparently SF does not have to be psychologically believable. Suzanne Collins is selling hundreds of thousands of these books, and I find that discouraging.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The End of Men

A recent issue of the ATLANTIC featured a long section on fourteen ideas about our changing world, the last of which was titled "The End of Men." This provocative essay is in three parts. The first sets forth the statistics that show the rising presence of women in what were, two generations ago, almost exclusively masculine arenas. Medical and law schools now graduate more females than males. More college degrees overall are awarded to women. For the first time, the number of female mid-level business managers exceeds that of male managers (although the same is not true of top-level management). Et Cetera.

The second part of the essay examines the recent depiction of male-female relationships in movies, citing film after film featuring a responsible, hard-working wife/girlfriend and a "slacker" male who basically does not want to grow up.

The third section theorizes why all this might be. The theory: Earlier societies, lacking our technology and far more dangerous, favored "masculine" traits of physical strength, competition, and control, which were survival traits. Today's society (in the United States, which is all the essay is concerned with) favors a different, more "feminine" style of management and professional conduct, based on empathy and consensus building. Thus women forge ahead faster -- and are more interested in doing so.

Do I believe all this? The graduation and employment statistics, yes. And I have noticed the slacker-male trend in movies for young people. But when I look around at the young people I actually know, I see just as many ambitious men as women, and also just as many young women who would rather take the path of least resistance. So I don't know. Thoughts, anyone?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


My sister Kate Konigisor is currently starring in MACBETH as part of the Shakespeare in the Park program in Buffalo, New York. No, she is not playing Lady Macbeth -- she is playing Macbeth. The director has mounted an all-female cast in the Scottish play, because "there are so many really good actresses out there and so few really good female parts."

Macbeth is a good part for anyone. Kate says it is the best part she has ever played, or ever expects to play. Certainly Shakespeare gets tricked out in all sorts of weird ways in the search for novelty, but the only weird thing about this production is the three sisters. After about fifteen minutes, the large and enthusiastic audiences seem to forget entirely that these are not men up there on stage playing warriors. The cast becomes no more and no less than the characters, and even the fight scenes, with lethal-looking broadswords, play to Shakespeare and not to novelty.

And my sister is wonderful. Okay, yes, I'm biased -- but all the reviews of the play have said the same thing. Here she is:
Yea and verily, "Something wicked this way comes."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How-To-Write Books

The annual fiction issue of THE ATLANTIC contains, along with fiction, an essay by Richard Bausch called "How To Write in 700 Easy Lessons," about how-to-write books. Basically, Bausch is agin' 'em. He presents a few spurious arguments, one confused one, and one good one. As someone who has written three such books, I was very interested in this article, although I don't agree with much of it.

One spurious argument seems to be that reading such books produces "cookie-cutter stories" all written to formula. That may be true of some how-to-write books, but many of them (including mine) do not present plot formula but, rather, suggestions for improving prose or characterization or foreshadowing or other aspects of craft. What confuses Bausch's argument is that he also praises books "with essays about craft and critical analysis of examples of John Gardner's THE ART OF FICTION." Well, in my experience, most such how-to books (including mine) do just that.

Bausch also dismisses all genre fiction as "harmless escapism" (one wonders if he's read Paolo Bacigalupi). This did not build my confidence in his acumen.

However, he does make one strong argument, although it only applies to some writers. Bausch maintains that many would-be writers read how-to books instead of great fiction. He says, "My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you need if you want to write." I agree with part of this: reading fiction extensively and constantly is essential to becoming a writer. But I also maintain that reading a few good how-to books can sharpen your awareness of craft. Just remember they are a side dish, not the entree.

And Richard Bausch -- read some good science fiction.