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Thursday, January 21, 2010


Laura Miller has a fascinating article over on about the derivative fiction that has developed around Jane Austen and her fiction. Pride and Prejudice in particular has spawned a number of sequels, which from my perusals mostly concern the Darcy marriage, their children, and sex. We can't forget the sex; Elizabeth and Darcy sex scenes are quite important in this sub-genre. (I'm no prude, and I enjoy the occasional (well-written) sex scene, but I think Pride and Prejudice does just fine without one.) And then there is Pride/Prejudice, which, as Miller describes, "posits that before Elizabeth and Darcy united, they each had same-sex affairs: Elizabeth with Charlotte Lewis and Darcy with Mr. Bingley." I . . . there are no words.

The popularity of books like this mystify me to a certain extent. It just seems so unnecessary. I understand the impulse to want to continue a beloved story, but especially when the original is a classic, I find the derivative works to be disappointing more often than not. If someone is going to retell a classic, or add on to it, I want the work to reach for more than just a simple continuation of the characters, or a shallow reimagining -- the derivative work should be able to stand on its own.

With Pride and Prejudice in particular, the derivative works I've looked at not only water down Austen, they build a fantasy around the time period that completely obscures the realities. Call me a crazy feminist, but as much of a catch as Mr. Darcy is, I'd much rather live in a world where I can vote. And own property. (I'm also a big fan of indoor plumbing and modern medicine.) I think some fans of Austen forget just how difficult life was for women and the lower classes. As Miller writes, "[t]he chick lit take on Austen is forever trying to subtract the brutal social and economic realities from her fiction." One of the most affecting scenes for me in Pride and Prejudice is the conversation Elizabeth and Charlotte have about Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collin. Charlotte, not having Elizabeth's or Jane's status, connections, or beauty, agrees to marry Mr. Collin (a sanctimonious, pompous toady) because it is an excellent match that will give her the security she needs. I cannot imagine a more miserable life than marriage to a man I neither love nor respect, but then I have the luxury of not having to make such a marriage for my own survival. The idea of marriages as love matches is fairly recent, and we lose sight that historically marriages were for the purpose of securing futures and fortunes and children, not love and companionship. As Charlotte explains in a separate scene, it is actually quite a good marriage for her -- she has no financial worries, and her husband is not likely to abuse her or humiliate her. She encourages his interests, such that he does not actually spend too much time with her, and once she has children she will have more than enough to keep her occupied and content. Our modern sensibilities might tempt us to pity her, but as she told Elizabeth, she does not want pity because her circumstances do not merit it. This aspect of Austen's world is all but ignored by those fans who only want to focus on the fantasy that Mr. Darcy embodies. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the romance in Pride and Prejudice (I sure do), but it seems to almost cheapen Austen's talent (and what she was trying to say) to ignore everything else.

None of this is to say I don't value derivative works (and I must admit, I am sorely tempted to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Without derivative works and retellings we would not have The Wide Sargasso Sea, Grendel, Till We Have Faces, Wicked, The Hours, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, most of Shakespeare's plays, and countless other works. As I said above, I just think the work should have something of its own to say.

Monday, January 18, 2010

French General

Mr. Beadgirl gave me their "Positano Cameos" notion tin for Christmas, which had ten vintage intaglios and cameos and ten brass bezels. I immediately wanted to make a pair of earrings from the pink intaglios, so I did:
I had originally planned to use the brass filigree edge to lace pearls on top around the intaglios, but it would have completely covered up the brass, which I did not want. So I just attached little pearls on headpins to the bottom. The larger pearls for the top of the earrings required 26 gauge wire because the holes were too small for eyepins, which meant I had to do wrapped loops which I can never get to look neat. If I ever find the right size eyepins, I'll probably redo them.

Here are the rest of the notions from the tin:

While rooting around a box of unfinished projects I came across this necklace, made from the Christmas-themed notions box from French General:
It was birthday gift from Mr. Beadgirl a few years ago, and I made this very long necklace using the included thread and wore it all month; unfortunately, the thread broke at the end of the holiday season (I think the mercury glass beads cut through the thread), so I put it in a baggy and set it aside to fix, and promptly forgot it. So a few days before Christmas this year I restrung it on fireline thread, which should hold up better.

Now I was on a French General kick. I still have a lot of the green and red and white beads left, so I am stringing my favorite red beads, flat discs faceted on one side, to make a necklace (I have a collection of necklaces made from different kinds of red beads I like to wear together). The knotting between each bead is time-consuming, but it sets each bead off nicely.

I think I'll also make earrings from the dark green pearls from the set.

I also broke out another notions tin (I don't remember how I got it), of garden-themed beads, buttons, and charms, and pulled out the French General book on jewelry design (have I mentioned I'm obsessed with French General?). I made the lariat from the book with waxed cord, though I added a clasp (after the photo) since lariats aren't my thing. It's long enough that with the clasp I can wrap it around my neck a few times.

The first kit I bought from French General many years ago was to make a charm necklace from vintage white and cream beads. I made it just by stringing the beads onto headpins or jump rings and putting them on the included chain like charms, but I was never crazy about it and rarely wore it (I wish I had had the foresight to take a picture). So this summer, after seeing necklaces with multiple chains and strands, I decided to completely redo the necklace. This time I linked the beads together in different groupings and attached them to the chain in layers.

I like this much better, and have worn it quite a bit since.

Then there is the vintage button charm bracelet, to which I added some buttons of my own:

And the egg bracelet kit which I made into a necklace, which I like even though it is blue, and which I will be wearing in the spring:

Not until I put this post together did I realize how much of their stuff I have.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Swap number 2

The second swap for my Crazy Fridays class was "plus-sized inchies." Inchies are little bits of mixed media or fiber arts, one inch square; plus-sized inchies, then, are one and a half inches, an easier size to work with. The swap was for December (ok, this post is a little late) when I would be swamped with school work and Christmas prep, so I was glad to find a ready-made base in my stash. Many months ago, back when my PBS station still showed the Quilting Arts TV show, I followed their instructions to make a painted and stamped sheet that could be cut up for inclusion in other projects. I took a piece of batik fabric and ironed it onto fusible web. I then used a flower stamp and puffy burnt gold paint (regular stamp pads did not leave enough of a mark) to stamp on flower images. I created sort of a checkerboard pattern, and filled the squares in between with asterisks using a coppery red Shiva stick, and then added a hint of gold with another Shiva stick and possibly some gold paint (I don't remember). The grid was just perfect to cut up into 1.5 inch squares -- here are a few:

So all I had to do was embellish and finish them! I love beading, so I added a few translucent gold beads to each one, and made it unnecessarily complicated for myself by arbitrarily deciding that each one had to have a different pattern of beads. Some were embroidered directly onto the squares, others beadwoven into shapes and then sewn on. I then ironed the squares onto rust colored felt (with the squares upside down on a thick towel to protect the beads). The traditional (if this artform can be said to have a tradition) finish is zigzagging, but I could not bear to zigzag repeatedly around each of over a dozen squares, so I came up with an alternative -- copper tape used for soldering. The tape has a sticky backing, and the copper went beautifully with the other colors. I have no idea how it will hold up long-term, but they look pretty neat now:

The inchies I received from the swap:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Gall Of Fame: Baseball

Over at Tomato Nation, Sars has started a discussion of the baseball players we hate the most. My list? Roger Clemens (so very many reasons), Gary Sheffield (claimed there are so many Latinos in baseball because we are "easier to control"), Manny Ramirez (lazy, violent, immature tool his last season with the Sox), and Curt Schilling (yeah, the bloody sock, but a real jerk).

Gall Of Fame: Baseball's Most Loathed Players

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Last Christmas Post

Christmas ended yesterday, so I'd better write about the last of my Christmas crafts. While browsing for ornament ideas and other crafts, I came across the Long Thread, which had a handy-dandy compilation of holiday crafts. Several were made from felted wool sweaters, and the Long Thread's thrifted tree ornaments and Alphamom's (shame about the name) thrifted sweater ornaments caught my eye. So I made my own:

These were made from a favorite green sweater I finally had to felt because of too many moth holes (a felting process that took forever, because I have a front-loading washing machine). I used only 12 circles for the tree, rather than the called-for 15, because my sweater was a little thicker. I also free-hand cut the circles because I was too lazy to print up the templates; I have several not-so-round circles in the scraps. A cheap "silver-plated" plastic bead tops it off. The wreath I embellished with vintage red pressed glass beads to look like little berries. It kind of reminds me of the wreath cookies my mom made, which were cornflakes and green food coloring stirred into melted marshmallows, formed into wreathes, and dotted with red hots. Mmm . . . artificially colored candy cookie products . . .

I also finished another square for the Advent Calendar -- Snow:
I fused blue fabric to the wool square, made a few snowflakes from clear seed beads, and attached them and plastic snowflake doodads to the square. Since I'd like to have this calendar complete by next Christmas, I'll be working on this throughout the year (especially since I finished 2009's year-long Christmas craft, to be shown later).

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Case of Conscience

I finished A Case of Conscience by James Blish quite a while ago, but I delayed writing this because I wanted to consult with Beadbrother to make sure I understood certain aspects of Catholic theology correctly (he's a priest). I had heard about this book through the late, lamented Dirda on Books chat run by Washington Post Book Editor Michael Dirda, and I bought it for Beadbrother thinking he would like it. A year or so ago I asked if he would lend it to me; he agreed to, said he found the book OK, and gave it to me. Only . . . he doesn't remember any of this -- not reading the book, not receiving or lending it, not having it, not even the cover or the title. A bit of a mystery, that. But he was able to confirm my theological assumptions were right.

So, the book. It is about humans, including a Catholic priest, who discover a planet with a sentient, technologically advanced race called the Lithians. The secular scientists of the expedition are mostly preoccupied with the technology and natural resources of the planet, but the priest, Father Ramon, is troubled by what he finds. The Lithians are a seemingly perfect, almost Edenic, race who have never experienced any crime, greed, ambition, pride, or any other sin. They have no need for governments or law, because everyone always does the right thing, the necessary thing to keep their civilization functioning. But they also have no concept of religion or spirituality or faith, no art of any kind, not even a sense of good or evil. They do "good" because that's what they do, but there is no reasoning, no greater concept behind it (I'm not sure I'm explaining this properly). As a result, they seem to have a perfectly moral society without any morals at all, without any involvement from God -- a heresy in the eyes of the Church, because all good ultimately, necessarily, stems from God. Given Father Ramon's unshakeable faith in God, the only explanation he has for this is that all of Lithia is in fact a creation of Satan, to test humans and to make them question whether God is necessary. The problem (according to the book) is that believing Satan could create anything is a heresy itself, Manichaeism. Father Ramon struggles to resolve this conflict, while at the same time deciding what should be done about the Lithians (and whether the Church will have any say at all in the matter given secular interests in the planet).

Blish came up with an unusual subject for a book, created a fascinating race in the Lithians, and handled Father Ramon's faith respectfully. Unfortunately, the book ultimately does not work, both in its theology and in its style. For one thing, it is soon apparent that Blish was not actually a Catholic himself. Father Ramon spends most of the book convinced that he will be defrocked and condemned to hell because the only explanation he can come up with regard to Lithia is heretical; his own faith in God and his desire to be true to Him, his struggle to understand what is going on and reconcile it with his beliefs, do not matter. This sort of thing shows up sometimes when non-Catholics write about Catholicism -- this idea that the slightest slip-up means automatic condemnation, no excuses or explanations, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Catholicism is by no means a religion for wussies, but all too often people forget that forgiveness and mercy are just as important concepts as sin. I have trouble believing that a genuinely faithful priest who is simply trying to make sense of a major theological issue the best he can is doomed for eternity. Especially since the whole thing is hilariously resolved in a five minute interview with the Pope, where the Pope asks Father Ramon if it occurred to him that a non-heretical explanation of Lithia is that it is an illusion constructed by Satan (the father of lies). Father Ramon is floored by such an obvious solution, I laughed out loud, and the scene shows that Father Ramon was not actually a heretic, but a man with incomplete information who was glad to find an orthodox explanation.

Moreover, the theology in the book is itself suspect. For one thing, believing that Satan can create something is not the same thing as the heresy of Manichaeism, which is (as I understand it) in part the belief that evil is a positive source or thing in its own right, rather than the absence of good, which implies (again, I think) that Satan and God are equals. Nor is the belief that Satan can create itself a heresy or otherwise forbidden. In fact, it rather quickly falls apart when one looks at the semantics, because illusions, long considered to be Satan's "specialty," have to be created, just like anything else. (I suppose one could argue that the creation God did is very different from the "creation" we and/or Satan does, which from a physics point of view is really just transformation of matter to energy or vice versa [but then that could be how Lithia was created]; or one could focus on the difference between creating something physical and creating something intangible, but that is way beyond the scope of this review or my expertise.)

Finally, the writing itself was not great. The book is in two parts, with two very different tones (which makes sense, given they were written separately). The first part is really just a series of speeches by the members of the scientific team on Lithia as they describe their impressions. The concepts (scientific and theological) are well thought out, but section feels like one long info dump (and I'm one of those weirdos who actually likes to read exposition). I think Blish could have conveyed a lot of the same information by allowing the readers to follow the members as they traveled and observed and ran experiments, rather than just giving us their speeches after the fact. The second part of the book, which focuses on a Lithian child raised on Earth, is more traditional, but it also suffers from too much telling and not enough showing. Several characters in both parts spend a great deal of time talking about how disturbed and troubled they are by Lithia and what it represents, but with the exception of Father Ramon we never get a clear picture of why they are so disturbed, of what is affecting them so deeply and how. And although we understand why Father Ramon is so upset (it's the point of the book), the language Blish uses to explain it is a little too abstract, too passive, too something, so it creates distance between the Father and the readers, making it harder to really feel for him.

In general, the characters are not fully developed. We spend a lot of time in Father Ramon's head, but we don't learn too much about him aside from his experiences with Lithia and the doubts and problems it creates. This can be forgiven, given that the point of the book is a theological/philosophical exercise. But the other characters are even thinner. Two members of the expedition (Michelis and Agronski, don't ask me which is which) are only there to serve as sounding boards for Father Ramon and Carver, the antagonist of the first part. One falls in love with the scientist who raises the baby Lithian (or so we are told, we certainly don't see it), and the other goes insane (again, we get nothing but a throwaway line that he may have had latent schizophrenia). Carver, however, is the worst, rapidly crossing the line from ordinary, everyday villainy into cartoonish supervillainy.

It's a shame, because despite these flaws I spent a great deal of time thinking about the questions this book raised, both during and after. It's an interesting, if deeply flawed, work.