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Final Fantasy V guest blogging

So, first off, sorry about the egregiously long gap between posts. I’m not sure what happened – I guess it just seemed so imperative to watch Star Trek and read Lord of the Rings that I let the whole darn summer slip away. I know you’re all eagerly awaiting my final thoughts on Mother 3, and I definitely have them, so stay tuned!

I the meantime, my husband and I have been playing through all the Final Fantasy games. Check out his blog ( for a conversation on Final Fantasy V – the weird one with an evil tree. Also, check out the rest of his stuff, because it is awesome (just like him. (Daaawww.))


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Misery, Misery, Misery

I generally don’t find that movie adaptations “ruin” books for me, but it is true that they can aggressively interfere with the reading experience. I sometimes find that the images and tone of a film can push their way in uninvited when I am reading, and it can be hard to re-find the imaginative space to let the story breathe on its own. The closer an adaptation is to its source, the worse the problem is. I have no great desire to watch “Game of Thrones,” because that world has already been so elaborately constructed in my head that it seems likely to be badly shaken by the introduction of other images. It is largely for this reason that I prefer film adaptations that do not slavishly adhere to the details of their source material, but instead try to find a new interpretation. But it usually doesn’t bother me too much, in the end, to read a book after watching a movie version. Usually, the words drown out the remembered images.

But sometimes…sometimes the images that I remember from a movie are just better than those that the text itself conjures up. This was my experience reading Stephen King’s “Misery” during a plane ride to Portland for Thanksgiving.


I first remember watching “Misery” with my brother and cousins at my aunt’s house. I must have been quite young, because I remember them telling me to leave the room for a couple of scenes (it was infuriating being the youngest cousin)…not that that really protected me, as I listened from the hallway to the sounds of screams and bones breaking. If you somehow haven’t heard a thing about it, quit reading now and go watch the film, as I imagine that it is best to see it unspoiled. However, if you want a quick plot recap: Paul Sheldon is a writer of a cheesy but insanely popular series of romance novels staring the adventures of a 19th century beauty named Misery Chastain. Following a car crash on a remote mountain road that shatters his legs, he is taken in by a former nurse named Annie Wilkes, who declares herself to be his number one fan. Upon reading his most recent book, in which he kills off Misery and ends the series, Annie grows increasingly unstable, forcing Paul to write a new Misery book and acting out in various unpredictable, violent, and frightening ways. Continue reading

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Successful and unsuccessful parody

“She had the kind of face that made you want to say hey, look at your face.”

— Clara Weinstein

The above sentence was an honorable mention in the 2012 Little Lytton contest. If you haven’t heard of it, Little Lytton was created by Adam Cadre to come up with the best worst first line for a novel. The explicit goal is to create intentionally unintentional humor – something deliberately crafted to look like the product of a bad writer attempting to be serious and coming across as absurd.

Another internet personality, Lindsay Ellis (aka. the Nostalgia Chick) and some of her buddies recently embarked on a project that takes the idea of Little Lytton to its natural extreme. Instead of creating just the first sentence to an intentionally unintentionally funny novel, they created the whole damn thing. The 50 Shades of Green project aimed to crowdsource a parody of a supernatural romance novel of the type made obnoxiously popular by “Twilight.” They took suggestions from fans for the plot and characters, and engaged a team of eight writers to produce the beast in a shockingly short period of time.

Although I sort of missed the project as it was unfolding, I did watch through the video series after the launch party, and found myself wanting to read the book. The supernatural romance is a genre that deserves the large amount of criticism it has received. The gender politics tend to range from icky to abhorrent, and from what I gather, the quality of writing is often no better than the low standard set by Stephanie Meyer. The genre experienced an explosion in popularity for a while, exploiting every supernatural niche it could find. Vampires, angels, demons, fairies – nearly every mythological creature is apparently more than capable of falling in love with your average high-school girl. At first I was critical of the premise selected by the 50 Shades of Green project. They based their romance off of the Lovecraftian universe: a romance between a hot, teenaged Cthulu and the girl he decides to not destroy the universe for. But I quickly realized that it was a genius premise for a parody. The clash between the Elder Gods – immortal and uninterested in the unimportant flecks that constitute humanity – and the sappy, sentimental, beauty-obsessed romance genre could not be more absurd. So I invested $5 and bought “Awoken” for the Kindle.

awoken cover

Of the submitted cover designs, this was not my favorite.

“Awoken” succeeds at one aspect of parody – accurate identification of tropes and trends in its genre. The protagonist, Andromeda Slate, is appropriately boring, personality-less, and willing to destroy herself rather than lose the dude she’s dated for two weeks. Teen Cthulu’s sexiness is exhaustively chronicled, and his personality is sufficiently creepy, controlling, demeaning, and emotionally opaque. Near sexual assault is used as a plot point to draw the romantic leads closer together, and the victim is quite efficiently blamed. “Awoken” is clearly aware of the literary and sociological issues with teen romance novels, and points them all out very competently, without being pedagogical about it. Continue reading

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Magical thinking for grown-ups

Wherever you go, there you are.

It would be pretty difficult, in the post-Potter age to write a book about a boarding school of magic without reference to Hogwarts. Lev Grossman in The Magicians doesn’t try. I like to imagine the book as a conversation between a cynical crank (who is secretly obsessed with the Potterverse and knows every inch of Potter lore) and someone who reimagines what a secret magical world would look like.

The cynical crank asks: Why is magic always so easy? All these kids need to do is wave around a fancy stick and spout some mumbo-jumbo. Even in Potions, the recipe’s always right there. Any idiot could do it.

The Magicians responds: Actually, magic is incredibly difficult to learn, requiring years of intensive study and months of memorization. You will read until your brain melts and leaks out your eyes. You will suffer, and you will like it, because it’s magic, bitches, and magic is HARD, goddammit.

“It’s different from what you think. You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”

Cynical crank: Why are kids recruited to Hogwarts so young? These children are inducted into some kind of secret, isolationist cultish society when they are only eleven years old. For Chrissakes, some of them don’t even know how to place a telephone call. How are they going to get along in the modern world of email, texting, Twitter, etc. etc.?

The Magicians: Actually, it just makes more sense to have a school of magic be a college, not a primary school. When students are recruited at seventeen, at least they will have some kind of basic skills for living in the modern world. And being highly intelligent, they will have more than the average knowledge in important areas, like math, and (non-magical) history, and civics and stuff. Also, they can have more sex that way, and also swear. And get drunk a lot.

“So it’s four years – ”

“Five, actually.”

“ – at the end of which I get what? A bachelor’s of magic?”

Cynical crank: What’s the deal with squibs anyway? Why is there so little empathy for people who aren’t magical enough for magic school, but who have contact with it anyway? Are they all evil janitors and crazy cat ladies that we can laugh off like they aren’t human?

The Magicians: Actually, life is horrible for people who know about magic but don’t receive training. It’s more than possible that if you aren’t accepted into magic school, you will drive yourself completely insane trying to get a second chance, dropping out of school and life and becoming a crazy-eyed, self-destructive shadow of your former self. That’s right, you think Filch really would have taken such a miserable, low-paying, low-status job if it didn’t give him the slightest contact with the burning light of magic, beautiful, terrible magic?

“They’re supposed to make you forget if you don’t get in.”

“But I should have!” She straightened up with the flashing red eyes and cold crystal seriousness of the true nutjob. “I was supposed to get in. I know I was. It was a mistake. Believe me, it was.”

Cynical crank: So, what’s up with all the faux medievalism? Would it really be so bad to give these kids a spiral notebook and a couple mechanical pencils? I mean, come on, quill pens?

The Magicians: Yeah, that is stupid, isn’t it?

As fun as that is (and I could go on in that vein), there is more to The Magicians than making fun of Harry Potter. It is an adult book not just because of the sex and the swearing and the drinking. It takes on what it clearly thinks of as a very “adult” idea of the world, that people are sometimes really awful for no reason, and people don’t change.

Quentin Coldwater, the hero of The Magicians is a miserable, self-involved teenager. He dreams of a magical world (the Narnia-inspired Fillory) from a children’s series, secretly wishing that he could live there, that if only he was there, he would be less unhappy. As it turns out, Quentin is recruited to a secret college for young magicians. Though he should be thrilled, and is at first, Quentin becomes disillusioned with magic, and with the school. He is eventually just as restlessly unhappy as a magician as he was as a very smart, very privileged teenager. And when it turns out that the magical land of Fillory is real and he is able to travel there, he is just as miserable there too.

This theme of miserable people being awful to one another comes up in modern fiction quite a bit, it seems. In particular, Quentin and his friends reminded me of the family in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – they are pretty much destined to be miserable jerks forever. The Magicians posits that adding amazing magical powers doesn’t essentially change that fundamental truth. Take that, children’s literature!

However, here’s the thing – this notion, that going somewhere magical doesn’t make you a different/better person, is pretty fundamental to children’s literature in the first place. Take The Phantom Tollbooth. In it, Milo starts out with a character flaw – he is always so self-involved and so focused on the future that he can’t appreciate the world around himself and is wasting his youth and his life being unhappy. After crossing through the Tollbooth to the Lands Beyond, Milo is not automatically changed into a better person. The very first thing he does is fall into the same old habit of not paying attention and drives smack into the middle of the Doldrums, where “nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes,” the embodiment of his own flaws. It isn’t until he starts actively looking and seeing and asking questions and doing things that Milo wakes up out of his unhappiness and starts to change. Going to the Lands Beyond doesn’t change Milo; Milo changes Milo.

Or take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lev Grossman must have re-read the Narnia books before setting to work on The Magicians, as Fillory pretty much is Narnia. In TLtWatW, Edmund is as selfish a little liar in Narnia as he is in the real world. Going through the wardrobe doesn’t change him – it takes time and suffering (and a Jewish carpenter magical lion) to change him.

So saying that magic doesn’t change a person’s nature isn’t really a new “adult” theme that contrasts with the magic-school fantasy. It may take Quentin a lot longer to maybe, kind of, eventually start to think about maybe someday trying to work on his personal issues and be a better person. But just like Milo, I think he might get there. You know, in a sequel or two.

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Other People’s Grief

I posted this a few days ago, when I was feeling lonely for family. It’s honest to how I was feeling then, but now I am feeling much more connected and less alienated. It is just hard to be away from family in a time of grief.


My grandmother recently passed away. It came as a bit of a shock – I hadn’t expected her to go so soon, and I thought I would have a chance to say goodbye.

There is something amiss in our society about how we handle grief. It is hard for me to ask for sympathy, but it isn’t often offered spontaneously, even when I am evidently upset. We seem to assume that grief is something so private that to ask about it might be intrusive, and so we sometimes ignore each other’s pain – choosing to err on the side of allowing them their privacy rather than on the side of embarrassing them with sympathy. This is understandable. Other people’s pain is awkward – someone who is usually in control of themselves finds their face and voice and breath to be suddenly behaving in ways they can’t control. This isn’t to say that anyone has been anything but empathetic once I opened up, but rather that they have been unwilling to open the subject themselves.

And it can be hard to say when you are hurting. On the day she died, I found myself answering “I’m fine,” just like always, whenever someone greeted me with a “How are you?” (This is the worst greeting. It seems like a genuine question, but it is so hard to answer it any way but positively. It’s hard to honestly answer that you feel sad.) But it is alienating to cry alone. I believe that people want that contact that casual friends and coworkers may be too embarrassed to offer, and they may themselves be too embarrassed to ask for. Public displays of grief shouldn’t be marred by this sense of intrusion and awkwardness.

There is also something joyful in public mourning. It is a chance to celebrate the people we loved, and to remember them. Trying not to show it when you are suffering undermines your opportunity to discuss how wonderful that person was.

My grandmother, Catherine Parker, was a wonderful lady. She was loving and sweet and always open to new experiences. She was a talented artist (the first thing to come up when you Google her name is a website showcasing her art). She was a huge figure in her community – whenever we visited, her social calendar was packed, and wherever you went, people knew her name and her work. She was much loved by her children and grandchildren, accepting, independent, and strong.

I love you, Omah.

“I Am Grateful” by Catherine Parker (1926-2012)

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Looking Round


This first post is supposed to lay out my ideas for this blog and perhaps some direction about where I might be headed. I can’t be sure which direction I’m going to take yet, so perhaps I will start with a little anecdote instead. A couple years ago, I was working as a lab tech researching mouse immunology. Then, as now, I took the bus to work every day, and because I always read on the bus, I always had a book with me. I can work through books at a good clip when I want to, and my PI (primary investigator for you non-scientist types — it means my boss and the head of my lab) couldn’t help but notice the always-changing roster of novels on my desk. Once, he told me that in the past ten years, since he went to medical school, he had never read a novel or a novel-length book. He said he didn’t have the time for it. I was, I admit, a bit taken aback, as I always seem to be when I encounter non-readers. I’m not sure why he told me this. Maybe he admired me for ploughing through so many pages with no ulterior incentive. Maybe he thought I should be focusing more on my work, rehearsing procedures in my head on the bus or something. Maybe, most likely, he was trying to warn me that if I wanted to do well in grad school (I would be applying soon), I would probably need to give up this luxury and focus on my studies. What I came away with was this: there are things a person is willing to sacrifice, and things a person isn’t. For me, reading books is central to my sense of well-being. I won’t give up doing the things I love, career be damned.

Although I may be a scientist (and, yes, a second year grad student), I must admit that there are many other things that occupy large parts of my time and mind-space. Books, yes, but I can’t deny that I spend hours each week watching TV shows and movies as well as playing video games and doing other non-grad-school focused activities. I don’t consider this time wasted. (Well, most of it. I can’t admit that I have perfect quality control on what I consume.) But I think it may be time for some output to come out of all this input. This blog is a space for me to put down my thoughts on some of the things that occupy and distract my brain.

Coming soon: “So, Clare, what are you reading, anyway?” and “How to play games with others”.

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